Learning to Self-Soothe Increases Independence

Learning to Self-Soothe Increases Independence

Learning to Self-Soothe Increases Independence

Many times I evaluate a child referred for ADHD or perhaps anxiety and my review of their early history reveals that they have been co-sleeping since babyhood.

Many time co-sleeping starts innocently because both mother and baby fall asleep while breastfeeding. Other times, it is just the simplest way to get the child to sleep and the parent naturally falls asleep due to exhaustion. However, we see a higher rate of co-sleeping among divorced parents, in which co-sleeping occurs because a single lonely parent wants the company or it is just a way of enforcing intimacy between the two.

When the baby wakes in the middle of the night, cries, whimpers and puts themselves back to sleep they have learned to self-soothe. This is the same exact self-soothing we all go through when we deal with a stressful event. Who hasn’t taken a deep breath when they know they have to mow the lawn or walk into a difficult business meeting?

When a parent sleeps with a child, they rob the child the opportunity to learn self-soothing. As a consequence, these children will not develop coping skills for everyday stress such as rushing to get ready in the morning or handling homework. Simply, co-slept children are less independent and competent. A 2016 Journal of Affective Disorders found a 9% increase in psychiatric disorders (ADHD, behavioral disorders and depression) in children who persistently co-slept.

Not only do these children not learn to self-soothe, but they often struggle being comfortable while alone. As teens they need constant companionship. They find peers that are willing to do so, but these same peers are often unsavory themselves. In their middle teenage years they find boyfriends/girlfriends who are also very needy and demanding.

Both from a clinical and research perspective I see increased anxiety and depression in children with a history of co-sleeping. These same children also often have separation anxiety since they still may have trouble leaving their mother, even to attend a birthday party. In school sometimes they simply think about going home all day to their safe zone.

I recommend gradually stepping these children out of the bedroom. First, a date should be circled on the calendar, at which point they are considered a big boy or girl. The process can begin with a child sleeping in a sleeping bag at the edge of the bed with a gradual progression every two weeks, moving the sleeping bag further and further away. That being said, the final step may still include some warning or “crying it out”. Parents must keep in mind that they are teaching their child independence and putting them on a trajectory for positive life success.

Gary M. Eisenberg, Ph.D