Learning to Self-Soothe and Surrender

Friday, September 19, 2014 - 5:14am
Photo by Björn Rixman

Learning to Self-Soothe and Surrender

Four months hit and Maya forgot how to sleep. I would put her down, answer an email, extract the dirty onesies and burp cloths from her diaper bag and throw them into the hamper, sit down to dinner, and as soon as I held my fork up to my mouth, the whimper sounded. Stomachs dropped. John and I exchanged defeated looks. The whimper evolved into a full-blown cry. “You want me to go?” he asked, dutifully.

“No,” I said, “I’ll just feed her.”

What saved me during these dark nights of the soul is what has always saved me, actually — wonder. I would sit in the blue absence and rock ever so slightly while Maya nursed away and ponder questions much bigger than my little life, my little family, our little — albeit sometimes torturous — predicament. The one that I’m really fixated on even these six months later is: how does a person learn to self-soothe?

As we’d been debating the various “sleep training” methods, a therapist friend said that she sees people all day long in her office — beautiful people ravaged by drug addiction and violent outbursts — who have never learned to self-soothe. They lose their tempers. They destroy relationships, careers, reputations. They break their own hearts. To my wise friend, sleep training is the first moment when you commit to making sure that your kid will know how to take deep breaths when the going gets rough. Or take a walk. Or say a prayer. Or get a mantra, or whatever else is necessary to back off from oblivion.

That, above all else, above the sleeplessness and the frustration even, convinced me to tolerate the excruciating physiological angst that I feel when my daughter cries. If she needs to cry in order to taste discomfort and understand there is life after it, than I will be uncomfortable with her, for her.

We have a video monitor, so I have actually been able to watch my baby girl learning her own way around discomfort. She does things with her little, pudgy, perfect body that I never could have done for her or taught her to do — barrel rolls around, props her feet up on the side of the crib, babbles with great seriousness to her imaginary audience. My nephew, too, surprised his parents with his soothing techniques. For months on end, when they went to get him from his crib, whether he was crying rivers of tears or just smiling, he had his hands perfectly positioned behind his head, like an old man soaking up some rays on the Coney Island board walk.

It’s been a bit of a revelation for me. We all have our ways to feel okay in the world. Some of us whistle. Some of us smoke. Some of us carry a stone in a pocket. Some of us maniacally refresh Facebook. Some of us pray. Some of us eat. Some of us walk. Some of us work. Some of us run away.

I’ve been reflecting on my own attempts to make the world less overwhelming, less cruel…well, just less of everything. I work. Too much. Feeling productive and efficient are strange balms. I drink a cup of coffee. I like the ritual of making it, the feeling of the warm mug cupped in my hands. It separates what came before and what will come after — a new start, a little help. I shower in the dark. I smother my face in the fur of my tortoise shell cat, coiled up in a patch of sunlight on the couch. I read — there is nothing like a well articulated, fresh idea to shift my mood.

Some of my techniques are largely unconscious. In the early aughts I broke into the spoken word poetry scene in the Lower East Side of New York City. It was a terrifying moment for me, climbing onto the little black platform at the Nuyorican Poets Café, grabbing the standing mic stand, staring out at a sea of skeptical faces, and recalling words that had sounded so right in a dorm room the night before but now seemed tragically naïve. In order to get through it, I yawned. Right before I’d go on stage, I would yawn and yawn and yawn; it was my way of trying to trick myself: “This is so not a big deal that I’m falling asleep.”

At night, I observe my daughter developing the first miniature moves of a self-soothing repertoire and during the day, I walk around looking at people through more compassionate eyes. I see the guy on BART, suited up on his way to work, and think, “How do you self-sooth? When did you learn to do that?”

I see the gangly high school kids walking up my block towards Oakland Tech and I can almost read the discomfort hanging like a bright aura around their bodies and I wonder how they’re coping. Do they draw on the same well that was first dug those difficult days when they were barrel rolling around their own cribs?

Even my husband gets a softer gaze from me these days. It used to drive me crazy that he whistled when there was tension between us. How can he whistle at a time like this! I would scream in my head. But now I realize that it is his way of self-soothing, of reassuring himself that this too shall pass.

Ian Maclaren, a Scottish theologian, wrote, “Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.” We are all fighting, indeed, but it’s not as external a battle as it seems. So much of it isn’t fight at all; it’s surrender. Surrender to sleep. Surrender to discomfort. Surrender to what it is. Surrender to our own greatness. Surrender to love. In truth, it’s not as epic as a battle; it’s a million little moments when we do our best to draw on our own sensory genius, our own self-awareness, our own faith, to feel okay in the world. It’s as tiny as a chubby baby in footie pajamas, finally, by the grace of her own persistent ingenuity, peacefully asleep.

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Courtney E. Martin

is a columnist for On Being. Her column appears every Friday.

Her newest book, The New Better Off: Reinventing the American Dream, explores how people are redefining the American dream (think more fulfillment, community, and fun, less debt, status, and stuff). Courtney is the co-founder of the Solutions Journalism Network and a strategist for the TED Prize. She is also co-founder and partner at Valenti Martin Media and FRESH Speakers Bureau, and editor emeritus at Feministing.com.

Courtney has authored/edited five books, including Do It Anyway: The New Generation of Activists, and Perfect Girls, Starving Daughters: How the Quest for Perfection is Harming Young Women. Her work appears frequently in The New York Times and The Washington Post. Courtney has appeared on the TODAY Show, Good Morning America, MSNBC, and The O’Reilly Factor, and speaks widely at conferences and colleges. She is the recipient of the Elie Wiesel Prize in Ethics and a residency from the Rockefeller Foundation’s Bellagio Centre. She lives with her partner in life and work, John Cary, in Oakland, and their daughters Maya and Stella. Read more about her work at www.courtneyemartin.com.

Share Your Reflection



This is so beautiful, so poignant, and so needed today. Thank you for writing it.

I absolutely agree

To every thing there is a season, and the season of infancy is not the time to learn to self sooth. This doesn't mean that it isn't sometimes necessary to let a baby cry herself to sleep. Everyone's needs must be taken into consideration. But there is science, now, to back up the theory of attachment and we know that, developmentally, it is completely appropriate, even necessary, for babies to depend on their primary caregivers for comfort and this includes soothing. I love the On Being pieces I read on FB, and I agree with the author that self soothing is something we must all learn, but at the right time.

I completely agree with you. Infants have crying as their only communication. As the Article said to self soothe we can do many things eat,pray,run etc but a baby cannot do those things not yet. They need their primary caregivers to soothe them and love them as explained with attachment complexes. Really enjoyed reading your reply!

Thank you for your comment. My husband and I chose not to have our son cry it out, and have gotten flack for it. We read Elizabeth Pantley's book "No Cry Sleep Solution," and found it invaluable. Life is hard enough when you're a baby, they need us to guide them until they have their own technique. My son has a stuffed knitted owl that has a pocket. He puts his finger in the pocket when he goes to sleep. I've had to repair the pocket a few times, but it's totally worth it.

Yes I agree well said!! the truth is found in our bodies as mothers....there is a reason we feel physically ill if we try to neglect the cries of our little ones...

I totally agree and all the research supports us. I wonder who this "friend who is a therapist" is because she's either been misunderstood and totally quoted out of context or she is a terrible therapist.There are two aspects of self soothing and the are both learned IN RELATIONSHIP with a primary caregiver: one is interpersonal regulation where the caregiver soothes the baby and the baby learns what it feels like to reguate. The other is intrapersonal regulation where the parent soothes HERSELF while in the presence of a baby who is dysregulated eg the parent practices breathing and staying present and compassionate while in the presence of a distressed and possibly distressing baby. That second aspect is DOWNLOADED literally from the right pre-frontal cortex in the parent to the right pre-frontal cortex in the infant through eye contact. (See Siegel,D. or Schore, A. and all the other interpersonal neurobiologists and neuropsychologists for references.

Thanks, Penelope, for taking the time to share this.

This piece isn't meant as parenting advice. Rather, the author is sharing her experience with her baby to make a broader point. I wonder, why are we so threatened by parents who make different decisions to the extent that we can't see her ultimate message and divert the conversation to one about "correct" parenting?

I think we respond as if we are "threatened," because most of us have had our needs neglected at one time or another and we know how bad it feels. A little baby who we then perceive to be neglected calls our own neglect to mind, we project, and then rush to defend the seemingly defenseless. Those that attack those that feel "so threatened," may be pushing aside their own feelings of neglect. We all stand where we sit most of the time.

I don't know when I listened to our neighbors ferberize their baby I almost cried. I picked up my babies and held them and I still do at 7 and 11 maybe I'm wrong but they will only be little for a little while-I have taught them boundaries patience empathy prayer and compassion and maybe those self soothe on a level and I beleive life is lived in community supporting loving and caring for one another not teaching us how to be alone

Thank you for this post! My organization, The Connection Project, is very interested in these same topics - the ways we navigate our own experience in the world in order to make it more peaceful, more fulfilling, and more meaningful. Wonder and curiosity are some of our primary motivating forces, and it is wonderful to meet another like-minded spirit. Great post! Thank you!


Thanks so much for sharing this resource, Megan. It's wonderful to know about.

This piece is such a good reminder. I know sometimes, in my spiritual and life practices, that I over-focus on "practice" as work and discipline and even obligation. This can lead to most unskillful frustration. It's so important to remember self-soothing, to make nurturing self the first step in the person one wants to be in the world. How else can we be a source of light and not of damage? Thanks, CM!

I've never been good at self-soothing. I always found it was easier to turn to my husband for reassurance and a hug. Now that he's deployed, I'm learning to navigate the waters of self-soothing on my own. It's tough at times but nothing beats feeling capable and strong afterward.

Thank you so much for your honesty, Janie. Sending you self-soothing strength!

Beautiful article, well written. While I appreciate the applications to adult life and soothing, I'm not ready to teach my own children that they must learn independence and to self-soothe...for the first few years of life my partner and I are there for them, believing that they will develop these skills later in life and infancy is not an appropriate age for independence.

I do agree with you, Chris. My mother told me I was such wonderful baby that she could leave me in my crib for hours and I did not cry, that I was months old before she brought me downstairs. It was for her, a harried mother of seven (later, eight), a blessing. For me, I believe it has contributed greatly to a lifetime of difficulty establishing trust. When anxiety mounts to keep me awake, I sometimes soothe myself at night by speaking to myself as if reassuring
mother to child.

Thanks for your open sharing of your experience. This touches a tender place in me. My mother was not able to be "present" when I was young and rarely is still today. Reading your response helps me realize the source of much of my and my sisters' anxiety. I am eternally grateful for anti-depressants and now meditation. I believe that modern psychology still has a ways to go in acknowledging the importance of treating the individual rather than the "illness". Once our culture embraces the value of compassion and emotional support, we will have come a long way towards many cures.

I think we learn to self-soothe in beneficial ways by being soothed as infants, by knowing that there is someone there to take care of us when we are tiny, dependent beings. I don't get and I don't think I will ever get Americans preoccupation with trying to make infants "independent". I think this mom's "excruciating physiological angst" at letting her infant cry it out is there for a reason. While we all learn strategies to self-soothe as children and adults, I believe that primary bond with a receptive, nurturing caretaker has more to do with someone's ability to self-soothe in beneficial ways than being left as infants to learn that no one is coming so you better take care of yourself. This article struck a nerve with this new mama.

Surrender is specially important, because a lot of what you describe is related to a trust (and faith--in the general sense) that things will be okay. Self soothing acts are hardly conscious and are hard to modify and re-learn. Therefore, one needs to practice and stay open and hopes for the best. In that sense, one is surrendering to something unknown within him/her self.

Infants need the reassurance, over and over, that their needs will be met. I believe self-soothing techniques can be introduced gradually from ages 2-5 and are more effective then. Self-soothing for adults can happen if a person is open to finding their own techniques. Mine is stopping--breathing--and letting the angst go. Thank you for this article.

you are a caring mother and are clearly trying to do your best. Don't all mothers try to do the same? Having a colicky infant is a singular experience (my husband and I had 2 of them who cried nearly 24/7 for the first 3-4 months of life) It is okay to help your infant--it is normal for her to ask you for help in soothing. I agree with others; people marvel all the time at the independence and strength of my 2 school age children--we helped them to find their calm as infants and continue to do so now and hopefully always. Do know these things are cultural determined "norms" and constantly shift. And one other comment, do feel free to lose the video monitor :) To me, just shows the way we have lost our footing in these modern times.

" Confidence unshaken that we remain the wondrous selves we were."The self soothing to me, means we need to model taking care of our inner child. Engaging in activities that are self nourishing. As much as possible,children need are full and undivided attention. To me that reassurance allows our children to feel the feelings so that they can manage any thing that comes their way.

Lovely, moving piece. Something I need to contemplate. I think a couple commenters are assuming incorrectly that you don't soothe Maya when you know she is unhappy. They need to retread the piece.

I think this is so beautifully said! I am a pediatric sleep consultant and I work with so many families who make decisions regarding sleep and their children.
It is good to let our children feel. We won't be able to always protect our children from everything but allowing them to feel and helping them down that road is a beautiful process to watch!

Thank you, thank you, thank you for these beautiful words.

Self-soothing is crucial... but it must come from a place of knowing you are safe. When and where do you learn that you are safe? From that first crucial year of development when you are picked up and held and loved when you feel alone, when you crying. This creates a platform on which to learn self-soothing. And ultimately empathy for others.

I so love these posts. (They make that "refreshing FB" strategy worthwhile!). It is heartbreaking to read of those "who have never learned to self-soothe"—I can relate to that. I deeply value the honoring of pain—as opposed to the attachment to the triumph narrative—we don't always win—and so the idea of surrender is very nourishing. It reminds me of the other expression about managing one's own discomfort or distress, which is "Hold it like a baby." A nice connection with your writing about a real baby. (It is also nice to read the word "aughts"!)

(I left my name off the previous by accident.)

Would you like a volunteer proofreader for a moment? I noticed "self-sooth"—it is a felicitous typo, eh? I like the idea of "self-sooth" too. It seems they go together. There is an aspect in honoring one's truth/sooth in learning to surrender.
_/|\_ [bow]

This reflection couldn't have come at a better time for me. We are on day 3 of sleep training our second daughter. Lots of tears have been shed this week from both of us. Rest assured, this will make us stronger in the end.

Before you sleep train your precious baby I invite you to read about how stress hardiness is developed in babies brains..a wonderful scientific 'cri de coeur' book entitled Why Love Matters by Sue Gerhart, Turns out that some types of sleep training do more harm than good to the developing brain and end up creating more unhappy and stress sensitive babies and adults later. There is alos a wonderful researched based program around called the Circle of Security . Blessings to new all new parents! Good luck.

I'm so pleased to see that someone has brought Circle of Security into this conversation! This program helps parents find the balance between stepping in to rescue children, and trusting them to find their own strength to manage their feelings and problems. Truly wonderful program, and this blog post has sparked a wonderful conversation demonstrating the vast range of comfort caregivers have with different ways of supporting children in their strong emotions.

This article makes me sad. I suffer from attachment disorder which means I never formed a healthy attachment to either of my parents. They let me cry it out, "self soothe" and continued on with their "suck it up" mentality throughout my childhood. The emotional needs of my parents always trumped mine. They literally broke my brain and my Christian therapist agrees. It isn't just a bunch of painful memories for me. It affects all of my relationships- especially those close to me like my brave and supportive husband. I have to learn how to form healthy attachments- a gift that my parents, namely my mother should have given me. It is simple. Go to your baby. Rock your baby, love her, and teach her how to love you back.

This is very harmful for infants. It goes completely against the latest research concerning infant mental health. Infants & toddlers cry to communicate a need to us & we ignore that need because we don't want to deal with it or because we believe such ludicrous notions as "self soothing" then we teach our children they cannot trust us to be there for them. When they are crying, they are stressed & cortisol floods the brain. Make no mistake about it, this alters brain development & emotional security, it also has an effect on developing and nurturing a secure attachment. Sleep training is a joke & so is self soothing.

please do some research and consider taking this post down. it is totally misguided and mis-information. Danel Siegel's first 2 books, The Developing Mind and Parenting from the Inside Out explain how self regulation is learned by infants IN RELATIONSHIP WITH PRIMARY CAREGIVER. This is never learned by crying alone. What is learned by crying alone is dissociation and insecure attachment. If you want more academic work, Try one of Alan Schore's four volumes.

The suggestion that sleep training has a link to adult addiction or general bad behaviour is preposterous. Really. Therapy is useless then I suppose if it really is the parents' fault after all. I was sleep trained. I lose my temper quickly, I drink too much, I've destroyed relationships so perhaps that relationship your "wise" therapist suggests is baloney. We are not sleep training our happy healthy baby so I guess we will just have to set up a therapist fund now lol.

I suggest you read more on attachment theory and attachment disorders. Flooding the brain with cortisol repeatedly literally changes the development of the infant's brain. Over time real physical damage can be noted in a scan.

Such a well written and important article. This is a large part of my spiritual journey right now. This is one of the few ways to stay sane.Not easy, but worth the effort. Thank you.

This was a gem to happen on, Courtney. Not one that needs debate, but treasuring because you and your baby are learning so much! And I particularly resonated with the therapist's observation about people who cannot self-soothe, and therefore self-medicate or fail to thrive, shall we say... You made me ponder human history of war and imperfection! Thank you~


How well put. I start laughing when there is tension between my husband and myself and it makes him crazy! And right now,as my life is in a transition, I am struggling to find peace with myself and my new life...surrender is a good word. Thanks for a beautiful article.

So many thoughtful responses, and such a heartfelt article.

My son is now six, and still struggles with regulating his temper. It has been a struggle to teach him how to self-soothe, and it makes me realize that I am also just now learning to self-soothe, as an adult.

Our culture is built on well-intentioned personal neglect and denial, encouraged to make fun of therapy and self-importance. But if we are not full selves, how can we contribute to the lives of others, especially to our children? I am not sure that we ever "arrive" as selves, because the more we understand, the less we measure up. But it's so important that we always try.

I think the "eating when you aren't hungry" is the self-sooth that goes on when we just don't know what else to do....searching for a reason to exist is seems.


I read your article a couple of times, because I wasn't quite sure what you were saying with regard to sleep-training and the connection with the ability to self-soothe as an adult (the portion about adults was very poignant and beautiful). My takeaway was that you were not advocating a "cry it out" (CIO) sleep training method, as you mentioned going to your baby to nurse her, and being "uncomfortable with her, for her", which I interpreted as being in her actual presence. I shared your article on a Facebook page I manage about birth and early parenting and got pushback from readers who interpreted it as just the opposite - that you were advocating CIO sleep training and in fact associating not sleep-training with addiction and mental health problems. As I re-read your article, it felt ambiguous to me - I really couldn't understand what you were trying to say about the relationship between the two.

There is some very good science that suggests that babies' ability to "self-soothe" or feel secure in the world is grounded in a relationship with a caregiver who is responsive to their needs, and that sleep-training methods that advocate "crying it out" are actually counter-productive to a child's ability to self-soothe. It appears from other comments you've received that I'm not the only one who is unclear about what you intended vis-a-vis the relationship between sleep-training and the ability to self-soothe as an adult. Would you be willing to clarify your intention with this? Thanks so much!

Leslie, did you ever get a reply to your question about CIO or no CIO?

I remember when I was young I used to sing, make up the music and words as a way to get to sleep. It's said that babies naturally breath from their bellies and that as we get older we learn to shallow breathe and wear tight waisted clothing that restricts our free-breathing. Maybe my singing was a kind of free-breathing.

This is good food for thought, but all the while I was reading, I couldn't stop thinking about your reference to "the dark night of the soul." As someone who suffers from major depression, it's a hard pill to swallow when someone else's "dark night" includes a seemingly vibrant work and home life, a beautiful, healthy baby girl and an interrupted dinner with a loved one.

As a professional child sleep consultant and former therapist I found this article so eloquent and I have shared it in every social media outlet I manage. I really don't see the words written as some sort of command for parents but rather a wonderful way to look at how we all, both big and small, learn to self soothe and the power that has for all of us in each of our endeavors. I work with families that love CIO and I work with families that love AP but most fall somewhere in between and all LOVE their children and want to give them safe and secure attachments and environments. The way in which they do this make look different or feel different but that doesn't make any one superior to the other person. We should all work more on supporting each other through this walk of parenting.

Bless you for this comment.

Courtney, thank you for opening up the idea that we should be sensitive to how everyone self soothes. It has been a huge blessing watching you as a mother and watching Maya grow up. I also tearfully resorted to teaching Amos how to self-soothe after all the walking/hugging/singing/co-sleeping failed. Seeing him finally asleep with his raccoon tucked under his elbow, I understand how necessary it is for some people to learn at this juncture. This reminds me to understand that Amos is self soothing when he puts my head in a wrestling hold when he tires of his car-seat. And now I understand why I eat so much cake in the evenings.


"We all have our ways to feel okay in the world." How much it helps to remember that! Thank you.

I found this article recently and have come back to it several time. It has given a name to something in my life I didn't know needed naming. It's a lot easier to work on something when it has a name, don't you think? I believe many behaviors in my life come from a lack of knowing how to self-soothe. Thank you, Courtney! I've also read your articles that have been posted since finding this site and I always enjoy it and learn something. Your writing is important!


I think this article just saved my life. I have chronic insomnia and after not sleeping for three days I had a flashback of my childhood that I was terrified of the dark and my parents always soothed me and when they couldn't anymore they moved me into my brothers room. After he demanded his indepence, I was totally lost emotionally and sleepless for decades not knowing how to self sooth. Now I'm 30 and my sleeplessness is more than I can bare. I have deep emotional issues and short term memory loss. I've been in and out of addiction to sleeping pills and I'm suicidal. I thought for awhile that I had some kind of chemical imbalance, but it's deeper than that. I don't know how to care for myself and deal with the world. Thank you for sharing your thoughts in a sensitive way. I'm going to go drink some tea now :)