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Ask Dr. Sears: Soothing Tricks

Q. I'm concerned that when I give my 5-month-old time to learn self-soothing techniques, he gets very worked up. Do I have to let him cry for him to learn how?

The ability to self-soothe is more a reflection of an infant's inborn temperament than of your parenting abilities. Mellow babies tend to become self-soothers earlier than infants with more insistent personalities, and some babies shun such comforting props as a teddy bear or a thumb to suck. These infants won't settle for anything but the warm arms and soothing sounds of Dad, or the nourishing breasts of Mom. Though it's exhausting, take it as a compliment that your baby prefers you. Don't be afraid that your baby is lacking something or won't become independent. On the contrary, the ability to engage caregivers as resources for comfort is considered to be the healthiest form of independence: interdependence.

There comes a time, though, when all parents get worn out (especially in the middle of the night), so it's important for babies to develop ways to comfort themselves. Between the ages of 6 and 9 months, a baby can start to learn how to soothe himself (with a little parental guidance). First, however, a baby has to receive messages from his parents that they believe he can do so. For example, let's say your son is sitting on the floor near you, and you're occupied with something that doesn't involve him. Instead of scooping him up when he begins to fuss and send out "pick me up" signals, reassure him verbally and with body language. Try to talk him through his need to be picked up, which has the additional benefit of buying you time to finish what you're doing. This way, he learns to be contented by your presence and the sound of your voice rather than by needing to be in your arms. Introduce him to this technique, of course, in gradual but frequent doses.

Periodically, try alternating comforting strategies. Suppose he wakes up in the middle of the night and wants to be nursed or rocked back to sleep. Try patting him with a reassuring hand, or inserting his thumb or a pacifier into his mouth so that he can soothe himself. Also, playing soft music distracts and calms him environmentally. Another good option is to place a baby-safe mirror in his crib: Seeing his reflection will usually fascinate and calm an upset baby.

If, on the other hand, your baby is not soothed by any of these efforts, it's possible his resistance could be due to his age. During their first six months, babies often don't have the developmental skills to self-soothe, with the exception of their ever-present thumbs -- some babies are already sucking their thumbs in the womb.

Time is probably on your side, though. Your son will soon be able to sit up, crawl, manipulate toys from hand to hand, and entertain himself. At that point, you'll likely discover that he's much more adept at self-soothing and less demanding of caregivers.