How to soothe a crying baby

Tips for calming your newborn to sleep

Soothing a crying baby to sleep can be one of the most gratifying experiences of parenthood. But as Toronto mom Alison Wood knows, some babies are harder to soothe than others. Her first, Olivia, was a sensitive soul from the beginning and given to evening crying jags. Then along came Jack, now three, who “almost killed us,” says Wood. “You had to wrap him snugly and hold him really tight because he’d get out of his swaddling. He needed loud shushing and jiggling. He would settle down, but it would take a while.” Just over a year ago, Finn was born, a placid baby who cries only when he’s hungry or tired, and is easily comforted.

Whether you’re blessed with an Olivia, a Jack or a Finn, here are some soothing strategies that may help both you and your newborn get a little more sleep.

Check for physical causes

Crying means something is out of whack in your baby’s world. Is he hungry? Does he need a diaper change? Is he too warm? Does he need a change of position? Babies are happiest when they are in close physical contact, and are sometimes calmed simply by being picked up and held.

Don’t hesitate to feed your baby

With tummies the size of a walnut and a rapid growth rate, infants need to eat often, around the clock. (If the baby seems frustrated when he nurses, or you have sore nipples, call a lactation counsellor.)

“The biggest mistake parents make is to create an environment of sensory deprivation for their babies,” says paediatrician Harvey Karp, author of The Happiest Baby on the Block (also available as a DVD). Adults may prefer to sleep in a dark, quiet room; not so with most babies. “To remove all of the stimulation that was there in the uterus is too abrupt for an immature nervous system. Babies are missing the hypnotic, rhythmic, entrancing symphony of sensations they experienced in the uterus. That is the key to soothing a crying baby to sleep.”

So how do we recreate that sensory paradise? Karp recommends what he calls the “five S’s” — traditional baby soothers that you may already employ instinctively. Some infants, he says, will stop fussing with only one or two; other harder-to-soothe babies will need all five.

Swaddling Wood found that all of her babies were calmed by being tightly wrapped. To swaddle your baby, lay her on a large receiving blanket and wrap her like a burrito, with her arms tucked snugly inside the wrapping. Wrigglers like Jack may do better in a Velcro-enhanced blanket like the Kiddopotamus SwaddleMe. For help with swaddling technique, log on to Todaysparent.com/swaddling and click on our how-to video.

Side or stomach position Crying babies don’t like being put on their backs, says Karp, because it feels to them like falling. Try holding your baby with his stomach along your forearm or lying across your shoulder. Wood found all of her babies preferred to be held upright, tucked under her chin. (Babies should always be put to sleep lying on their backs, though.)

Swinging and rhythmic movement Matthew James did a lot of walking in his Toronto neighbourhood with second daughter Isobel in a front carrier. When she was about two months old, Isobel was soothed by a ride in an infant swing on the high setting.

Shushing and white noise Haligonian Christine Larocque held Jesse, now five months, under the bathroom fan when he was overtired or upset. “His breathing would slow down and he’d drift off to sleep.” Similarly, James says a white noise machine placed near Isobel’s crib helped her stay asleep. And don’t be afraid to turn up the volume, adds Karp: The sound babies heard in utero is about the volume of a vacuum cleaner. “It needs to be loud like a shower.”

Sucking Once a baby is calmed, sucking induces a state of deep relaxation. Some babies seem to need extra sucking. If you offer a pacifier, try to wean your baby by five months or so, before he becomes too attached.

The ability to self-soothe increases as your baby gets older, says University of Toronto nurse and researcher Robyn Stremler. Until then, it’s still important to help her when she’s upset — and there’s no worry of “teaching her bad habits” at this young age. At the same time, Stremler adds, it’s a good idea to put your baby down drowsy but awake once in a while; this encourages her to learn to drift off without your help. Karp also recommends that parents jostle the baby just a little when they make the transfer from arms to sleeping place.

Figuring out what will soothe your baby may take some trial and error. Some parents swear by a warm bath or a massage. Many babies are calmed by skin-to-skin contact. Or it may be that special two-step with The Wailin’ Jennys is just what your baby needs to drift off to dreamland. (Visit askdrsears.com for a list of more than 30 baby-soothing ideas.)

What if nothing works? “Remember that sometimes you can’t solve it,” says Wood. “You just have to get through it.” Most of the time she stuck it out because though Jack continued to cry even while in Wood’s arms, she says, “I’m sure he knew that I was helping him.”

Frustrated with guessing what’s behind your baby’s tears? These fast facts will help you get a handle on them.

All babies cry. The average amount of crying in the first three months is two hours a day. A baby is said to have colic if he cries at least three hours a day, three days a week, over a three-week period.

Crying follows a universal pattern. The amount a baby cries in a day peaks at about two months of age and tapers off by five months.

Is there such a thing as inconsolable crying? Paediatrician Harvey Karp says that in 20 years of practice, he’s never met a healthy baby he couldn’t console; the key is to perform soothing techniques with enough vigour. “You have to match the intensity of what you’re doing with that of the baby’s cry,” he says. If a baby is really screaming, a quiet lullaby isn’t going to do the trick, but a tight swaddle and loud white noise or shushing might.

However, studies by paediatric researcher Ronald Barr suggest that while responsive caregiving helps most of the time, a few babies will have inconsolable bouts of crying. He says acknowledging this is an important public health issue. The incidence of shaken baby syndrome (where a baby is shaken hard enough to cause serious brain injury) correlates to the peak crying period. Health professionals and parents need to recognize how profoundly stressful excessive crying is, and understand it isn’t the result of poor parenting.

If your baby cries a lot, it’s important to make sure you have support — someone to call on when you need a break. If you feel frustrated or angry, put the baby in a safe place, like her crib, and leave the room. If you’re concerned, talk to your doctor. While most lusty wailers are in good health, a few may have a medical condition, such as stomach acid reflux or a food intolerance, that is causing discomfort.

Caregiving style is a factor. Cross-cultural studies have consistently shown that infants in tribal cultures who are kept in close contact with their mothers cry less. In a 1986 study, Barr found increasing the amount babies were carried in a day reduced the amount they cried overall, especially in the evening. (In the wake of this study, increased carrying was widely touted as a “cure” for colic, but subsequent studies haven’t shown this.)

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