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“What a child doesn’t receive he can seldom later give.”
– P.D. James

I absolutely love the above quote by P.D. James as it highlights the issues so often forgotten in today’s parenting world.  With the push to get our infants and kids to be independent, we seem to believe that the only way to get them there is to force them.  If we don’t put them on their own two feet, how will they learn to stand?  And I believe nowhere is it more true than in the push to get children to regulate their own emotions—or self-soothe, if you like.  You experts tell us that if we don’t let our babies cry and calm themselves, they’ll never learn to calm themselves.  And so parents embark on practices that hurt not only their babies but themselves as well.  Listening to their child wail, alone, they survive by telling themselves that they are doing the “right” thing and that this is how their child will learn to self-soothe.  But what you have failed to tell them when giving this advice is that it’s quite simply not true.  They’re holding themselves together by a lie and that has to stop.

The self-soothing argument always reminds me of the saying “sink or swim” except in this case, it’s “cry or self-soothe”.  They’re both equally asinine.  If you think of the “sink or swim” saying, it’s really only applicable to people who know how to swim; someone who doesn’t know how to swim yet will sink every single time.  Learning to regulate your own emotions is no different.  Unless you’ve learned how to do it, you will fail, and it’s why your advice to parents proposing they “teach” their children using these methods is not only painful to the family, but doesn’t help the child in the long-run.  In this article, we’ll review the evidence, the theories, and the long-term repercussions of what it is you’re doing by spreading this misinformation.

Evidence in Favour of the Crying to Self-Soothe

I should start by providing the evidence that some of you would try to cite in favour of this approach to learning emotion regulation (I say “some” because many of you don’t bother with this whole research stuff at all, sadly).  Thomas Anders of the University of California, Davis has been a significant researcher in the field of infant sleep and has examined factors that lead to infant self-soothing with respect to sleep in the first year of life.  Much of his research does not support the crying to learn self-soothing (for example, see

[1]), but unfortunately one piece of research has been used for this position.  In this study identifying factors that predict self-soothing at one year of age, the researchers found that increasing the time to respond to the infant upon awakening starting at 3 months was a significant predictor in self-soothing at 12 months[2].  In addition to this one piece of Anders’ work, Karyn France from the University of Canterbury in New Zealand has examined the use of drug and behavioural techniques to treat “infant sleep disturbances” (I struggle mightily with this because it implies infants should sleep through the night which is ridiculous in and of itself – for more see Baby Expectations).  She has found that infants of parents who engaged in “systematic ignoring” (i.e., cry-it-out) techniques show great success in getting their children to sleep and stop crying and suggests that the success comes from infants learning to self-soothe (e.g. [3][4][5]).

What is the problem with this research?  Largely the method of assessing “self-soothing” is simply the extinction of crying.  In Lesson One we talked about what it means to stop crying and how there are other explanations for why an infant would cease to cry that have nothing to do with lessons learned or, in this case, self-soothing.  That same lesson applies here as infants who stop crying may not have learned to self-sooth at all, but they have learned not to cry because it’s a waste of energy.  So how do we assess self-soothing?  You have to look at infant behaviours that precede and keep them from getting frustrated or crying, so you know the behaviour is actually helping them avoid the negative state.  You can also measure early parental behaviours and then examine child self-soothing behaviours (or emotion regulation, as it’s called in older children and adults) when the child is of age.  Luckily, researchers have done just that, but before we get to that, I want to cover some of the theories surrounding the failure of the “sink or swim” model.

Observational Learning, Guided Learning, and Mirror Neurons

The question we have to ask ourselves is how children learn.  If the sink or swim method were successful, we would never have to help children on the path to understanding anything, but the fact remains that we do.  Some might try to argue that we don’t explicitly teach kids that much – like walking, for example – and they would be right, but it doesn’t mean we still aren’t teaching them at all.  In 1961, a professor by the name of Albert Bandura at Stanford University undertook what would become an amazing experiment now called the ‘Bobo Doll experiment’.  He split young pre-school children into groups to observe an adult interact with a bobo doll either aggressively or not.  He found that children who witnessed the adult act aggressively were more likely to act aggressively themselves, even though the behaviour had not been explicitly taught[6].  These results supports Social Learning Theory, a psychological theory postulating that social learning occurs through imitation until the concepts being learned are internalized and fully understood[7].  Thus, with respect to self-soothing, we don’t need to explicitly teach infants how to self-soothe, just model the behaviour for them.  In some cases we do just that when we calm ourselves down, but this type of learning does require a much older child to be able to understand the nuanced behaviour that self-soothing can include.

This brings us to what has been termed ‘scaffolding’ or ‘guided learning’.  In addition to simply modeling behaviour ourselves, guided learning means that we are showing children the behaviour of interest and helping them learn how to perform it themselves.  Some researchers believe that when parents offer comfort to children, they are modeling the behaviour children should follow in terms of how to soothe themselves[8][9].  Indeed, they argue that this is the way children eventually learn to soothe themselves in a healthy manner.  But why, then, is this not internalized in the first few months?  After all, many of you experts would argue that you tell parents to avoid crying-it-out for a period of time, or to offer comfort during the day and thus, wouldn’t those times model the behaviour for infants?  To answer this, we need to turn to Lev Vygotsky.  In addition to his seminal work on psychology and culture, Vygotsky coined the term “zone of proximal development” which refers to what a child is capable of doing on his or her own and what he or she can do with help[10].  This is key as attempting to teach a child something outside of his or her zone of proximal development means the child won’t learn at all.  Emotion regulation, being a complex and difficult task at the best of times, is something that is most likely far beyond the reach of any young infant (at least in terms of the full emotion regulation we expect).  Children take time to learn how to regulate their own emotions, and this may take place at different time points for different types of regulation.  In the interim, guided learning would suggest that we continue to model the behaviour by helping infants when they are distressed so that they can learn to do so themselves.  Expecting them to learn this too early means they not only won’t learn it, but may never learn it properly if we stop modeling the behaviour for them.

Finally, mirror neurons deserve some discussion here.  For those unaware of the term, mirror neurons refer to neurons in the brain that activate not only when one performs an action, but when one witnesses it as well[11].  They have been identified in primates and humans alike, but have so far been limited to physical acts[12]; however, they have been hypothesized to play in role in all sorts of psychological functions, particularly theory of mind (the ability of to understand the mental and emotional states of others)[13][14].  It is quite possible that infants utilize mirror neurons to learn about behaviours relevant to emotion regulation.  Importantly, this would mean that they require witnessing the acts, as described via social learning or guided learning theories, for the appropriate areas of the brain to incorporate that information and utilize it when necessary.  Without this stimuli, it would be unreasonable to assume the mirror neurons would learn what they are meant to do; after all, those who work with mirror neurons believe they are the key to our ability to imitate[15], and imitation is necessary for almost all types of learning.

Evidence Against the Crying to Self-Soothe Hypothesis

Evidence for the role of responsiveness to distress helping emotion regulation comes across age ranges.  Starting with work in infancy, researchers at the University of Oregon examined infant behaviours for evidence of self-soothing acts (i.e., ones that helped the child avoid negative emotional states) and found that there were various manifestations of self-regulation of emotions in infants from 3 to 13.5 months of age.   These acts included some that the infants were able to do themselves (like arch away from a negative stimulus), but many involved the infant utilizing the mother as a buffer to help avoid the negative emotions[16].  This suggests that during this early period of learning about the self-regulation of emotions, infants are aware of their own limitations and are able to turn to those who they know can help them regulate negativity.  Importantly, this research was done during the day and utilizing a variety of behaviours and games to induce negativity in infants and thus did not rely on the usual “stops crying” as the assessment of self-soothing.  It also suggests that children who call for help when distressed need that help as the infants who could self-regulate their emotions did so during the study; of note is that no child was able to self-soothe during all of the conditions presented to them – they all needed some help sometimes.  Thus, ignoring our infants’ calls for help won’t lead our infants to learn to self-soothe any faster – they’re doing the best they can – but will simply serve as evidence that the parent is not there to help them when they request it.

As I discussed in My Baby Cries Too, there is also neurobiological evidence that excessive crying  is damaging to the brain.  Megan Gunnar of the University of Minnesota has researched and reviewed the wealth of research on this phenomenon and found that infants who are left to cry excessively demonstrate a stress response in the brain that develops into what has been termed a “stress-reactive” neurological profile[17].  This stress-reactive profile suggests a lack of emotion regulation in older childhood and adulthood and doesn’t exist when children are provided with comfort when they cry.  So it seems that the neurological research suggests that leaving your child to cry not only shouldn’t lead to self-soothing behaviour, but may lead to a failure to develop healthy emotion regulation techniques.

To top it all off, there is evidence from older children that demonstrates quite the opposite of the sink or swim hypothesis.  First, though not conclusive evidence, excessive crying (which can occur with some children left to cry-it-out) has been linked to later problems with emotion regulation[18].  Notably, however, this research did not find relationships between later emotion regulation and maternal sensitivity, sensitivity encompasses a varied array of maternal behaviours, not all of which pertain to responsiveness to distress.  Pertinent to this, research that has teased apart maternal warmth and responsiveness to distress (the two main components associated with “maternal sensitivity”) found that responsiveness to distress, but not warmth, predicted emotion regulation in 6- to 8-year olds[19].  Further research comes from a longitudinal study looking at maternal behaviours to infants aged 6 months and then child behaviour at 2 and 3 years of age[20].  In this study maternal responsiveness to distress at 6 months, but not responsiveness to nondistress, was found to predict emotion regulation and socio-emotional functioning at both 2 and 3 years of age.  This was particularly true for infants who were rated as being temperamentally reactive at both 1 and 6 months of age.  This research highlights the long-term implications of parental behaviour towards their child, particularly when the infant is known to be highly reactive.  Notably, highly reactive infants tend to cry more to begin with[21] and thus understanding the effects of parenting behaviour is paramount for these children.  Finally, in a wonderful review on what affects later emotion regulation, Judy Cassidy from Pennsylvania State University reviewed the research between attachment parenting and emotion regulation and found that infants who have parents who engage in practices that promote secure attachment, particularly responsiveness to distress, have children who demonstrate better emotion regulation than those who show insecure attachments[22].

In sum, there is a plethora of research, both psychological and neurological, that demonstrates the importance of responding to an infant’s distress in order to facilitate emotion regulation.  The idea that the infant learns to self-soothe without being exposed to soothing behaviour from adults is quite simply false.  Infants are the proverbial sinkers who can’t swim if they’re not taught how.


The importance of properly teaching self-soothing/emotion regulation to your infant cannot be understated.  The cyclical nature of parenting has shown us that attachment behaviours and patterns are transmitted between generations; that is, children tend to repeat what they experience[23].  This means that parents who don’t respond to their child’s distress in infancy will most likely have children that will grow up with problems in regulating negative emotions which can contribute to their problems in providing comfort to their own children.  It’s a pattern that can be very difficult to break (though obviously not impossible as many people who use evolutionary or attachment parenting methods do so because they became self-aware of some problems stemming from the way in which their parents raised them).  By promoting methods that lead to problems in socio-emotional functioning, you experts are not only damning the children who have to experience the pain of crying-it-out, but generations to come.  I hope you can learn from this and at least realize that telling parents a lie to help them ignore their children’s needs helps no one.  Parents deserve to have the truth when making decisions about how to raise their children so they don’t become reliant upon lies to help them through the hard patches.

Up to now, we’ve covered quite a bit about crying (why it happens, what can lead to it, how touch helps, and the lies told to ignore it) and now and we’ll start to move away from that to cover another area you’re mostly all so fond of – routines.  And not just the generalized routines that families tend to fall into (we are human after all), but the strict schedules many of you claim to be necessary to “help” our children. Stay tuned…


More from Educating the Experts:

Lesson One: Crying

Lesson Two: Needs

Lesson Three: Touch

Lesson Five: Schedules


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