Many parents have questions about emotional self-regulation and often ask me where self-soothing fits into Aware Parenting.
Understanding what all this means is a crucial part of your child’s emotional health and your continued relationship throughout life.
Isn’t all crying bad?
First, I find this is often a burning question. Crying itself is neither good nor bad, it’s innate. What matters is how we respond. Beyond immediate needs, crying still serves a purpose: it’s babies’ natural and healthy way to work through their experiences.
Crying that’s being ignored, separated from, or distracted is very different from crying that’s being accepted, listened to, and loved. For more on this, read here >
In other words: you’re not a bad parent if your baby is crying or you can’t get him to stop.
Emotional self-regulation and self-soothing
In that light, let’s turn to these sound-helpful-but-secretly-guilt-inducing (if your baby is crying) terms. Self-regulation has varied definitions but is generally related to the control of emotions. Self-soothing is often perceived as a strategy for self-regulation, described as comforting oneself.
When you think of emotional self-regulation in relation to babies and toddlers, what do you picture? Likely one who is not crying, who may be sucking a pacifier, their thumb, or nursing for comfort, maybe in your arms or lying peacefully in their crib falling asleep.
Is that really true? Or is it an assumption? Crying is innate, which means we need to question this.
Did you know the term “self-regulation” (related to emotions) usually refers to the appearance of control over big feelings, which typically covers up suppressed feelings—
—not to the healthy processing of expressing emotions and the natural balancing that comes with it?
I know the world constantly tells you that you should always be able to figure out why your baby is crying, to stop the crying, and that your baby should look calm and orderly (ie, not crying). Mama, this is not always possible! Let go of that expectation. Your baby is wise and he’s communicating with you.
I’ve seen reference to self-soothing allowing babies to take part in their own self-care. But once you know this information, it’s really more akin to being a bystander.
So take the pressure off—you don’t need to teach how to self-soothe. Your baby already knows how to maintain the best healthy internal balance! Your role is to be present, hold, listen, love, and witness your baby’s incredible brilliant innate communication and healing process.
If you’re working with “crying in arms” and an Aware Parenting process, there may be times you find your baby self-soothing. That’s okay, it’s a process 😊
How babies naturally relax
Your baby is wiser than to cry for no reason. Babies innately know that in order to relax, they need to ‘let off steam.’
They ‘get it out of their system’ naturally by attempting to cry within the context of a loving, listening relationship–not by “comforting oneself”! Comforting oneself happens when there’s no one else paying attention–it’s a survival mechanism.
The journey to true calm and internal balance(ing) is often loud and may feel messy and chaotic. But doesn’t it make sense that in order to find a calmer balancing state, we all need to release the charge first? Then babies’ physiological-emotional state will change on its own. (Hint: sleep is a state… This is very related to sleep!)
Indeed, babies may have a hard time dampening down those big feelings (“self-regulating” in the common sense)—because that is not an innate process, it is learned.
Even though self-soothed babies may appear calm, on the inside deep down they still have all those unreleased feelings under the surface. Those pent-up feelings will continue looking for an escape route until they find their way out, whether through crying or later through challenging behaviors.
What to do instead of self-soothing
Be present, hold, listen, and love…
When baby cries beyond immediate needs, that’s your cue he’s telling you his story and processing his experiences. He wants you to listen! He will feel immensely better naturally after he gets it out. We call this “crying in arms.” Read more here >
I truly get excited when parents tell me their baby had a good cry in-arms. Healing happens right in front of our eyes!
Some of the most magical moments with babies happen during cry releases—when they look you in the eye to communicate their story; when you suddenly realize they’re replaying a past experience on their own accord, trying to understand; or when you’ve gone on a journey together through the sweet chitter-chatter, the ramping up, the sweaty intensity of the feelings, and come down the other side peaceful, content, grounded, and “calm.”
So, I leave you with this question. What does “calm” really look like? And does this match the typical expectation for “emotional self-regulation”?