When you have a child who doesn’t sleep – the words “self-soothe” can make you break into a cold sweat. As the months went on and on and on and my youngest child continued to not sleep, and not sleep – and I went quite mad – I felt like all I ever heard was those two irritating words.

He has to self-soothe! I was told by people who I am sure had no idea what that meant.

If he doesn’t learn to self-soothe he will never sleep! They said.

I felt quite lost. Self-soothing as a concept being forced on me just didn’t pass the sniff test. What was the age for self-soothing? Where did this term come from?

It seemed to be part of the style of parenting I was trying to avoid – milestone parenting where everything is about ticking something off the list. Are they on solids yet? Have they taken their first steps? Are they toilet trained?

There seemed to be no room for the individuality of the child – and mums just seemed to be being beaten up for failing to buy into this self-soothing obsession.

I said once that my son did self-soothe. When he was upset he called for me. He snuggled up to me and rubbed his hand on my neck. Was that not self-soothing?

My response was scoffed at. Apparently self-soothing only happened in isolation. In silence. In the dark. Without anyone else! That part was vital – nobody could be involved in the secret process of self-soothing.

I gave up. I told nobody my son had flunked self-soothing school. When people asked if he was self-soothing I said yes. And he continued to “self-soothe” sweetly in my arms as we slept.

A few years later he’s still not a good sleeper. He still self-soothes his way – by cuddling up to me and sleeping with me. But now I’m OK with the arrangement. I’ve let go of guilt, let go over the unrealistic expectations (of me and my baby), and I’m following my instincts.

I’d all but forgotten about the self-soothe brigade when I noticed something at kindergarten.

As we walked into his lovely little kindergarten, my three-year-old pointed to the little babies area. He’s usually in an area for older children – though the whole kindergarten is open for children to move between areas.

He went to the babies area and sat down with the babies. He picked up a board book and started looking at it. This is a lovely part of the kindergarten – it’s mostly very quiet and it’s a cuddly place. Babies sit on laps, play with heuristic toys, are sung to, and read to.

My little one was self-soothing I realised. He hadn’t slept well. Was recovering from a mild cold the week before, and was feeling a bit fragile. He didn’t tell me in so many words, but a mum knows right?

He had chosen this space in the kindergarten to start his day in, because it was quiet there. He knew he could ease into his day.

This is surely – self-soothing.

But it’s not in isolation. And it’s not in silence. And it’s not in the dark.

Our kindergarten has created spaces where children can choose what level of interaction they want with others. Places where they can be quiet and calm – and places where they can be noisy and excited.

My little one is empowered to move through these spaces as he needs to.

The teachers have helped us to teach our child to feel what he’s feeling and choose an environment that supports where he’s at. That’s self-soothing! That’s real self-soothing in my view – none of this, babies need to be independent and learn on their own nonsense. This is a child feeling completely secure and safe in their community.

I talked to my husband about this when the kids were in bed that night. He told me about how our youngest had gone to his room for “quiet time”. This is something our oldest does a lot – he calls it “chill time”. We talked about how our son’s teachers had taught us the importance of providing spaces for the kids that were theirs and theirs alone. Spaces that they could choose to go to – to self-regulate their emotions, but also a place where we were present if they needed us.

It’s safety. Adults do this too – we want “me” time. When we are choosing a spot to eat lunch we might decide to sit alone, or with a group. Respecting kids wanting to do this, needing to do this, is so important.

It’s another lesson our son’s teachers have given us. Our instincts were right, but more than that – we can build on what we know to be true with the experience and knowledge our son’s teachers provide us with.

It’s really quite soothing when you think about it!

Emily Writes

Emily Writes is the editor of The Spinoff Parents. Her book Rants in the Dark is out now. Buy it here. Her second book Is it Bedtime Yet? is out now. Follow her on Facebook here.

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