Labeling and responding to emotions while dealing with bedtime issues : Social Referencing

          During initial meetings, many parents have told me that they have tried to follow the baby sleep 101 rule, “putting your baby in the crib when he/she is drowsy but awake” but have failed. Their little ones were finally calm and seemed to be falling asleep in their arms so they tried to transfer their babies very slowly and gently to the crib. However, regardless of their tremendous efforts and time spent, as soon as they put their little ones in the crib, their babies woke up and started acting out immediately. Then, the whole process of rocking, walking, shushing, etc. starts again. What has gone wrong?

          Well, let’s put ourselves into your babies’ shoes. Being transferred to the crib can cause them to have a falling sensation, losing of warmth through physical contact, and losing your smell and sound which are two of the most comforting senses for babies.  If I were a baby who always gets all of these conditions to fall asleep/maintain my sleep each time I go to bed, I would do my best to cry hard enough so my parents know that I am not ok and I want all of these things right away.

          We all know what’s going on in your babies’ head. You can acknowledge their feelings (Including negative feelings) and have empathy. Your job as parents is not to remove your child right away from this environment, but help them manage their emotions since regulating their emotions is a big part of development  for all children.

          To explain how we help them to manage their emotions, I need to explain how babies learn different emotions. Babies depend on parents (or other primary caregivers) to interpret the emotions and learn how to respond ambiguous emotions to label them. For further understanding, you can watch the video of a classic study called “cliff study”.


          As you can see from the video, babies defined that it was dangerous or safe based on the emotions their mothers’ displayed through non verbal communication. They saw their mothers’ negative expression, they considered it was not ok to cross. However, when they saw their mothers’ positive impression, they felt confident and safe. You can find  similar cases in your daily situations. When babies are hurt, they will cry. However, when they are not as hurt, they will look at you to see how you respond. It is called “social referencing”. Social referencing develops gradually and picks up at 12 month or just after.

          So, when you put your babies down in the crib or deal with night time wakings, my first suggestion is that you are aware of your non verbal communication, in other words, your massage that you are giving them. If you are showing confidence, calm and relaxation, your babies will perceive the situation as you feel (even though they may feel a little afraid since they are not used to it). Further to this, some parents may ask me how they can change their perception of this situation so they can feel confidence, calm and relaxation. Firstly, it requires creating a safe, relaxing sleep environment as well as following a loving developmentally appropriate schedule and sleep routine.  Secondly, look into seeing if your babies have enough daily outdoor activity, nutrition intakes, and engaging bonding experiences with you for their emotional well-being such as infant massages. Thirdly, change your attitude. According to Magda, do not feel sorry for "poor baby" who must go to bed — rather remember how good it feels to rest when you are tired, and how nice it feels to wake up refreshed. Fourthly, provide as many opportunities as they need. All skills require some time to master. No rush and also remember that each child is unique.

What is your confident, calm and relaxing face? :)


Magda Gerber (

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