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Self Soothing: 7 tips for Teaching a Baby or Young Child to Calm Down

| Importance of self soothing | How to teach a child self-soothing techniques | When can babies self soothe |

What is self-soothing

Self soothing is a form of emotion regulation, which involves monitoring, evaluating, and modifying emotional reactions to calm an individual in distress. These reactions include self-directed behaviors and internal processes that can diminish primarily negative emotions and return one’s physiological arousal to a stable emotional state​1​.

In other words, self soothing is the act of calming and comforting oneself in order to reduce stress and anxiety so they can feel better. It is a response-focused and emotion-focused regulatory strategy that addresses one’s emotion after it arises (instead of addressing the situation prior to the emotion’s onset)​2​.

pick up baby from crib

Importance of self soothing

To ensure their survival, babies are born with a mature arousal system to alert their caregivers to potential danger. 

Through attachment behaviors such as crying, protesting separation, and clinging in fear-inducing situations, children form attachment bonds to their parents.

Their emotion regulation systems, however, are not well developed at birth.

Although babies engage in self-soothing behaviors like thumb sucking and twirling their hair when they are upset, they cannot develop advanced self-soothing skills by themselves to handle difficult situations independently​3​.

Unless children receive adequate developmental support, maladaptive self-soothing methods may develop, leading to later problematic behavior, such as oppositional behavior (children) or alcoholism (adults).

Thus, self-soothing is essential for children, not only to fall asleep at night or calm themselves in tantrums, which is crucial, but also to develop effective coping skills. These calming skills developed during childhood are useful throughout their lives. Self-soothing techniques can help children avoid developing maladaptive methods that are detrimental to their future health.

How to teach a child self-soothing techniques

Teaching babies and children to comfort themselves involves the following steps.

Co-regulate before self-regulate

A child cannot self-teach self-soothing in a vacuum. Without experiencing it, babies will not know how to invent soothing on their own.

Self-regulation, therefore, is not something babies learn or develop by themselves. They need teachers and partners.

Co-regulating with a parent or caretaker is required for babies and children to learn self-regulation. 

Parents co-regulate with their children using warm, responsive interaction. They  support, coach, and model to co-create a positive emotional state with the children​4​.

Don’t leave a crying baby or child to “learn to self-soothe”. They learn by experiencing it, not inventing it.

Use self-soothing techniques

Parents can use the following common self-soothing strategies to soothe a distressed baby or young child during co-regulation.

  • Redirect attention
    In the early stages of arousal, a child’s attention may be redirected away from stress with some distraction.
  • Physical Touch
    During infancy, contact comforts such as self-soothing touch and being hugged are crucial for easing distress​5​.
    Physical touch can trigger the release of hormone, oxytocin, that can activate the parasympathetic nervous system in the child to calm themselves​6​.
  • Continuous monotonous or rhythmic stimulation
    The arousal of a baby’s stress response system can be reduced by continuous stimulation, such as rocking, swaddling, white noise, the human heartbeat, or sucking on a pacifier.
  • Sufficient duration and intensity
    Depending on the developmental stage, the duration and intensity of stimulation for your child must be adequate and long enough to interrupt or diminish distress​7​.

Pay attention to cues

Having the right support at the right time is key to co-regulating. A tuned-in caregiver can remove or lessen the impact of aggravating situations.

Pay close attention to your children’s cues and respond sensitively and consistently over time.

Observe the behavior to better recognize symptoms of predictable stress, such as tiredness, hunger, and boredom. When your child shows signs of being irritated, comfort them and apply a consistent approach to help them alleviate the stress​8​.

Provide sensitive, responsive, and consistent care

Children don’t just learn how to self-soothe when distressed. Give-and-take interactions in everyday life that promote a secure attachment also contribute to emotional regulation.

Provide nurturing, consistent, and responsive parenting in daily interactions. 

Responding to young children’s needs and preferences teaches them that they matter. Consistency teaches young children to trust others. Children learn how to connect with others reliably and joyfully when you are sensitive and nurturing.

When a child responds to the parent and the parent, in turn, responds to the child, a dialog begins and a relationship forms.

The relationships we have with others often motivate us to change our behaviors, learn more about our feelings, and modify our emotions. 

Children are more likely to develop effective strategies and a sense of calm if they experience trust and form a secure attachment to their parents​9​.

Help them practice

Learning to self-soothe requires practice, just like any other skill.

Allow mild to moderate stress for them to practice their calming techniques.

To develop healthy coping skills, children need mild and moderate stress, positive coping models, and scaffolding appropriate to their age​10​.

They observe and explore their emotions and expressions as their parents soothe, encourage, and relate to them in varying ways.

Be patient

As children test ways to calm themselves, they learn through trial and error.

Often, caregivers feel distressed when their children are distressed or when they make mistakes. In response, they try to get rid of the feelings. 

But it’s okay to have feelings, even if they are distressing.

Be patient as our children learn and practice to perfect their coping methods.

Additionally, in stressful situations, they still require help soothing and regulating, but as they grow older and master these skills, they become less dependent on others.

Self-soothing parents

Role model effective form of self-regulating.

To co-regulate with children, parents must exercise their own regulatory skills. 

Demonstrate to your children how to manage strong emotions, such as overwhelm, anger, or burnout, in a healthy way. 

We do a better job supporting our children when we are calm and even-keeled.

When can babies self soothe

The ability to self-soothe depends on a baby’s temperament, the environment, and their parents’ responses to their distress, which are influenced by their cultural belief, mental health, and experiences growing up.

Baby’s temperament

A child’s temperament determines how easily they can regulate themselves. 

Different temperaments affect how strongly children experience and express their emotions. Stimuli such as light and noise trigger different responses in them. They also manage attention, changes and transitions differently. 

For example, babies who experience more intense emotions may have a harder time calming themselves. In contrast, those who are able to divert their attention from arousing stimuli tend to be more soothable and less affected by parents’ or other caregivers’ negative emotions​11​.

Environment

Adverse early environments can damage a child’s self-regulatory systems.

When children grow up under chronic stress, their stress-response system develops to adapt to dangerous and unpredictable situations.

However, the adaptations that allow children to grow up in adversity can impact their physical and emotional wellbeing and compromise their ability to self-soothe.

Cultural belief

Different cultures’ values, beliefs, and parenting practices influence how self-soothing is learned.

Problem crying is common among babies who have not yet learned to self-soothe and it is a part of the normal development process.

Even though crying bouts are similar across cultures and their timing is similar, the duration of crying bouts is shorter when breastfeeding on demand and carrying babies are more common, indicating better self-soothing capabilities in infants​12,13​.

Physical and mental health

Babies whose mothers suffer from mental health issues such as depression and anxiety or physical health problems such as difficult pregnancies and traumatic births have more persistent crying at three months of age​14​.

Parent’s own childhood

A parent who was not treated sensitively and responsively as a child may have difficulty responding appropriately to their child’s emotional needs. 

Practices such as hugging a child in a tantrum may be considered socially inappropriate for these parents.

Rather than seeing their lack of regulation as a behavioral representation of what the child cannot verbalize, these parents may view it as a personal threat preventing them from providing the kind of care their child needs.

Final thoughts on self comforting in children

It is important to know that parents play a crucial role in the development of self-soothing skills in young children.

The child doesn’t learn to respect his or her feelings if we react to their emotions with anger or impatience. When we respond calmly to children’s sadness and anger, we help them accept these emotions and find ways to live with them.

Find out more on emotional regulation and social emotional development.

References

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