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Baby Bliss: How to Help your Fussy Baby Learn Self-Soothing
Find out what makes baby fussy and help him learn self-soothing tips.
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Imagine feeling overwhelmed at the thought of being in a room filled with strangers, or being in an unexpected and uncomfortable situation.  Can you calm yourself down? Keeping the familiar waves of anxiety, fear, or social discomfort at bay may actually stem from a critical step in early child development.

“These feelings are directly linked to one of the most crucial issues in healthy child development,” says Dr. Vicki Panaccione, Ph.D., founder of the Better Parenting Institute and a child-clinical psychologist with 25 years of private-practice experience working with children and families.
There are times in every child’s life when he or she faces difficult challenges and encounters unpleasant situations.  Similar to the anxiety and fear experienced by adults, children face scenarios such as starting a new school year, making a new friend, or reading aloud in class.  Although every child will confront these common scenarios, not all know how to address and cope with them.  

“Mental health professionals are seeing more and more anxious children than ever before,” says Panaccione, “And the key issue is the lack of ability to self-calm.”  In addition to social anxiety, low self-esteem and self-confidence, even depression is being linked back to the first few weeks and months of life.  Commonly thought of as a vital factor in sleeping through the night, the learned skill of self-soothing is a tool that experts agree children need to thrive throughout their life.  

Fussy beginnings

“As babies [children with poor anxiety management] were always held, soothed, rocked and not allowed to cry or even fuss,” says Panaccione, “As preschoolers, these are the kids who aren’t sleeping through the night or are still sleeping in their parents’ bed, acting overly clingy, having separation issues, and exhibiting general anxiety.

“And they grow up to be children and teens who lack confidence because they have not learned to handle situations on their own.  Their whole life has been one of being protected.”

These children have not physiologically developed the mechanism to calm themselves and grow up believing, “I [always] need someone to take care of me and calm me down; I can’t do it for myself.”  


Soothing Tips

“It is natural for parents to want to hover over their children, providing for their every need and working to ensure they are happy and secure,” says family therapist, Natividad Lamug of Baguio City.  

Self-soothing or calming leads to mastering anxiety, and experts caution that it is a disservice to pick a baby up at the first sign of whimpering. “It is paramount to the baby’s development that he learn how to handle his own fussiness and discomfort,” Lamug explains. “Learning this provides the bulk of the foundation to develop frustration tolerance, effective coping strategies, self-confidence and independence.”

Look and listen

Panaccione and Lamug are among many who teach that crying within reason for a few minutes is actually a valuable learning tool. Lamug says, “If it’s a frustrated ‘I’m tired,’ or ‘I’m bored’ fussy cry, let him be. Let him have the chance to soothe himself.” If the crying escalates, it’s an indication that something is needed, or the baby has not yet learned how to self-soothe.  “Of course don’t let him become hysterical, but remember that a child who is fussing and periodically crying is actually developing the skill of self-soothing,” she adds, “and picking him up before he’s settled down disrupts that lesson.”

Before picking your baby up, try readjusting his position or turning on music to promote a calm state.  Provide distractions for him to settle down and give him approximately five minutes to stop crying and calm himself.  Lamug explains, “This teaches your baby to begin to explore his world and learn how to use objects to soothe himself.”  That’s why rattles, soft cuddly toys, musical mobiles, etc. are so important. They provide diversions and the rudimentary ingredients to self-soothe,” says Lamug. But avoid using bottles or sippy cups as a security object as they create confusion as to when it is time to eat and when it is time to soothe.

Take a time-out

Depending own their temperament, some babies need more support at first than others. “However, there are ways to slowly introduce self-soothing techniques to your child so that when he becomes aware of a new surrounding, he is able to cope and feel safe,” says Wendy Barash, clinical psychologist and mother of a young son.  

As much as you want to hold your baby all the time, give him periods to be on his own throughout the day.  A few minutes in his crib every day may be harder than it sounds, but this teaches him that it is okay to soothe himself.  If you’re not ready to put him in his crib, lay him beside you as you fold laundry, or sit him in his highchair next to you while you put the dishes away.  He’ll know you’re still ‘there’ but that you’re not an extension of him.  Try doing this at the same time every day and for the same amount of time. “Two minutes is a long time away from mom at first, especially if he’s always held or sleeps in a family bed,” Barash notes, “you can gradually build the amount of time, or, build up to him spending time in his room.”

Try this at nap time first, letting him fuss for a few minutes in his crib before going in to pick him up.  “And then when you do pick him up, soothe him until he stops crying and then put him back down,” Barash adds.  Continue doing this by increasing the amount of time you wait until you go in and pick him up after naps.