‘I hear you, baby’: The role of co-regulation in building self-regulation skills in our infants and children

When babies are born, they have very little ability to self-regulate. From infancy, primary caregivers—including early years educators—are invaluable in helping children to learn this skill through co-regulation.

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Co-regulation has been described as ‘The ability to regulate through the comfort of another’3 (Leila Schott, https://thrc.ca/events/healing-circle/, April 2022) or as ‘Warm and responsive interactions that provide the support, coaching and modelling to children to understand, express and modulate their thoughts, feelings and behaviours’ 2(Murray et al., 2015, p. 14).

Educators who are skilled in understanding infants’ social and emotional health and wellbeing—primarily through approaches such as Circle of Security and responsive settling—develop warm and responsive interactions, which are fundamental for the development of self-regulation in all children.

In scientific terms, co-regulation leads to self-regulation, where the shared management of feelings allows emotions to become safe and then supports the ability of our infants to manage them independently in the future.

Examples of co-regulation

Three-month-old baby Zoe softly cries as she wakes up from her nap. Jodi, her early years educator, calls to her saying, ‘I hear you, Zoe, I’m on my way’, as Zoe quiets.

Nine-month-old Charlie rubs his eyes and begins to grizzle. His educator, Peter, says, ‘You’re getting tired, aren’t you, Charlie?’, as he places Charlie safely in his cot, staying with him while he settles before walking away. Charlie fusses for only a minute before drifting off to sleep.

Each of these educators support the child’s self-regulation skills by co-regulating with the child in their care, looking closely at the cues displayed and responding sensitively with support. This is especially important in everyday skills, including achieving sleep.

What does ‘being with’ our babies and children mean?

Being-With is, in many ways, at the heartbeat of the Circle of Security approach. It’s such a simple concept: the need every child has for caregivers (parents, teachers, etc.) to recognise and honour feelings by staying with core feelings rather than denying their importance. (The Circle of Security International, 2016, April 15)

Tuning in and responding to a child with warmth and gentleness lays the foundations for healthy social, emotional and mental health.

Self-regulation is influenced by external factors, like the environment and interactions with others, and internal factors such as temperament. The particular temperament children are born with impacts how easily they can regulate themselves.

Why primary caregiving in co-regulation is key

Primary caregiving relationships in the education and care sector help to build solid foundations for children’s development. It’s not only children who benefit from this close engagement, but parents and colleagues as well.

Children who feel a strong sense of trust and connection with their educator or care provider can behave more authentically. When children are stressed, their primary caregiver provides a buffer and helps the child to regulate their behaviour. Awake times and sleep periods are both positively impacted by high-quality relationship-based care.

Educators also gain an intimate understanding of the varying personalities and temperaments of the children in their care. This connection can help with the early detection of changes in the child’s behaviour. Having a sense that something is wrong with a child is enough to warrant an educator to observe closely.

Co-regulation at sleep time

For infants to develop these skills, especially when it comes to sleep, the most important thing we can do is the opposite of leaving them—we can practice co-regulation. When they cry, we should be with them, calming and comforting them.

Sleep Smart is a safe sleep and settling training service that collects data pre and post-training across early years services to measure the impact of co-regulation in sleep. Results consistently demonstrate that through effective co-regulation with their educators, children improve their hours of sleep in centres, and the time to settle infants and children decreases markedly. Educator anxiety around ‘sleep issues’ is also positively impacted through the co-regulation approach, with educators now enjoying sleep and rest periods for the children in their care.


  1. The Circle of Security International. (2016, April 15). The balance of Being-With. https://www.circleofsecurityinternational.com/2016/04/15/the-balance-of-being-with/#:~:text=Being%2DWith%20is%2C%20in%20many,rather%20than%20denying%20their%20importance.
  2. Murray et al. (2015) Murray, D.W., K. Rosanbalm, C. Chrisopoulos, & A. Hamoudi. 2015. Self-Regulation and Toxic Stress: Foundations for Understanding Self-Regulation From an Applied Developmental Perspective. OPRE Report #2015-21. Washington, DC: Ofce of Planning, Research and Evaluation, Administration for Children and Families, US Department of Health and Human Services.
  3. Schott, L., Leila Schott, https://thrc.ca/events/healing-circle/, April 2022)

ECA Recommends: watch Cindy Davenport’s full presentation at the ECA National Conference in October. Virtual passes are available now. 

Cindy Davenport

Cindy is a Child and Family Health Nurse, Midwife and the Clinical Director of Ternity Group, which encompasses industry-leading safe sleep and settling training—Sleep Smart. Having worked in the early learning sector since 1998, she has a keen interest in the health and wellbeing of families. She offers a sensible, response-based approach to helping babies and children sleep, and can assist parents and carers with the associated problems this presents.

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