Our baby finally learned to self-soothe! In the first few months, as I sat with my baby asleep on my lap, rocking her for hours, trying not to move an inch or make a sound, while reading about putting your child down “sleepy but awake,” this milestone of self-soothing seemed completely out of reach. However, 3 months rolled around and our daughter suddenly and miraculously discovered her thumb. Despite some initial resistance to let our daughter suck her thumb, the encouragement of our pediatrician and the realization that this put her to sleep led to a pretty swift reversal on this judgment. Now, my husband and I will place our sleepy daughter on her back in her crib, walk back to the living room, and then watch in fascination as she eventually flops to her side, finds her thumb, and gets herself to sleep. The memories of me sitting and rocking her with one of my arms fast asleep and my phone, kindle, and remote control just out of reach, while I try to stifle every cough or sneeze and pray that our noisy neighbors do not walk by our door seem so distant now.
So how does this relate to my work and to the parents and children that I work with? I have been starting to think of this as the concept of “the art of getting out of my child’s way and letting her calm herself.” While my daughter will eventually make it to her side, find her thumb, and fall asleep, there are often numerous tries and cries and squeals that come first. My husband and I initially would come into the room right away and try to soothe her every time she started crying or just stared straight into the camera of the monitor (and into our souls, we would joke) “beckoning” us to come back. We have started to learn that every time we intervene, we actually are interfering with her process and it prolongs her ability to work on coping. We started to set a rule that we would wait 5 minutes before coming in and, 95% of the time, she is fast asleep by 5 minutes. A few times, I have built up the courage to wait 7 minutes and that seems to do the trick on those rare occasions it is needed. I realized that it really is mostly my husband and myself that are suffering during those 5 minutes that she is crying/squealing/staring blankly into the camera. If we can overcome our anxiety about her experiencing mild distress, our daughter actually has learned and can use the tools to calm herself and get the sleep she needs.
This really resonates with the concepts that I have learned and taught parents of children and adolescents with anxiety. A lot of times, the more we intervene with our anxious children, the less it gives them the opportunity to develop and practice coping mechanisms to challenge their anxiety. This does not have to be all or nothing, either. I mean, my husband and I are waiting only 5 minutes at the moment. This may mean just slightly delaying your response to intervene in anxiety-provoking situations for your child/adolescent. For example, if your child had social anxiety and difficulty ordering at a restaurant, maybe it is just taking a few breathes while the server waits for your child to respond instead of speaking for him/her right away. If your child is nervous about trying something new, maybe it is just asking them what they are nervous about and seeing if they have alternative ways of looking at the situation before providing them with reassurance or immediate solutions. You may start small and realize that your child may be able to manage their anxiety for a longer duration or more difficult situations than you once imagined. I realize that my 4-month-old and her self-soothing capabilities are much simpler than the complexities of anxiety. However, sometimes it helps to start from the simple. I am starting to realize that my own anxiety about my child’s distress does not need to be transferred to her. She is resilient and letting her cry for a few minutes is OK and will help her continue to learn how to cope and to become more resilient. If parents want more resources for managing your child’s anxiety, I have read and recommend reading either of the following books. Both are based in Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) and align with this concept of helping your child approach, instead of avoid, anxiety-provoking triggers: Helping Your Anxious Child by Rapee and Anxiety Relief for Kids by Walker.