"These feelings are directly linked to one of the most crucial issues in healthy child development," says Dr Vicki Panaccione, PhD, founder of the Better Parenting Institute and a child-clinical psychologist with 25 years of private practice experience working with children and families.
In addition to social anxiety, low self esteem and self confidence, anxiety and even depression are 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.
There are times in every child's life when he or she faces difficult challenges and encounters unpleasant situation. Although every child will confront these scenarios, not all know how to address and cope with them.
"I am seeing more and more anxious children than ever before," says Dr Panaccione, "and the key issue is the lack of ability to self-calm."
Who are these children?
"As babies they were always held, soothed, rocked and not allowed to cry or even fuss," says Panaccione. "As preschoolers, they are the kids who are sleeping in parents' bed, clingy, having separation issues, and general anxiety." 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 grown up believing, "I need someone to take care of me and calm me down; I can't do it for myself." They have not physiologically developed the mechanism to calm themselves.
What you can do
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," Panaccione explains, "This is the total foundation to develop frustration tolerance, effective coping strategies, self-confidence and independence."
Panaccione is among many who teach that crying, within reason, is actually a valuable learning tool. "Parents know a fussy cry from a hungry, hurt, or angry cry," she says, "And if it's a frustrated, I'm tired, or I'm bored fussy cry, let him be." If the crying escalates, it's an indication that something is needed, or he has not yet learned how to self soothe.
Before picking your baby up, try readjusting his position, turning on music, etc. to promote a calm state. Provide distractions for him use to settle down. She 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 and musical mobiles, etc. are so important. They provide diversions, and the rudimentary ingredients to self soothe. Panaccione notes, "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
Some babies need more support at first than others depending on their temperament. "However, there are ways to slowly introduce self soothing techniques to your child so when he becomes aware of a new surrounding he is able to cope and feel safe," says Wendy Barash, MA, clinical psychologist and mother.
As much as you want to hold your baby, give him periods to be on his own. A few minutes in his crib everyday 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 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 everyday 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 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 coming 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.
Another technique is to sit on the floor or in a chair where your baby can see you from his crib during his alone time but do not engage him by talking or use of eye contact. This teaches he is able to feel safe in his environment while learning to sooth himself.
An older child can help you create a special area designated for alone time. Have him select favorite objects that soothe rather than those that stimulate, to put in the area and try to enclose the space with either a make shift partition or with blankets and pillows. Creating a small space promotes feeling of safety. Barash adds, "It is important to help him feel he has control of being alone and establishing a schedule for alone time is key."
Don't make alone time a punishment or entertainment. "You want it to be a place that they know they get to have when they feel out of control and explain he they can go to his place whenever needed."
Setting the stage for sleep
Environment also plays a very important role in your child's ability to self soothe and thus to sleep soundly. Jennifer Waldburger, a recognized expert in sleep, parent education and child development, who also leads parenting groups in Santa Monica, CA, says the vast majority of sleep problems can be solved if "babies have skills in self-soothing."
To develop an environment that promotes self soothing, Waldburger suggest darkening the room when he is sleeping "even in the morning and during naps." Use steady, white noise from a fan, air purifier, or white noise machine to drown out sounds like a dog barking outside or the phone ringing. Also, remove distracting items from the crib that do not contribute to sleep such as toys, books, aquariums, music boxes and similar objects.