How to Soothe a Crying or Fussy Baby

The cry of an infant is at times heart-wrenching and at times nerve-shattering. As babies and parents get to know one another, parents become increasingly able to distinguish between their baby’s different cries, soon learning what constitutes a cry of hunger or a cry of fatigue.

At times, however, parents may have difficulty decoding their baby’s signals and may be left feeling frustrated and even frantic as the infant continues to fuss, fret, and wail.

Early on, crying is the infant’s only means of communication. A cry is, in fact, a baby’s attempt to signal a need. It is by no means accidental, then, that the sound of an infant’s cry is disturbing. In a sense, this means survival for the infant, since the disturbing cry elicits a quick response on the part of the caregiver. Generally, mothers instinctively give a nurturing response to their baby’s cry. 

An infant’s cry evokes several physiological changes in the mother. There is an increase in maternal heart rate and blood pressure. Blood flow to the breast doubles and prolactin, the hormone responsible for milk production, increases. The mother is described as having a biological urge to respond to her baby’s cry. Thus, it makes sense that parents follow their natural desires to respond, and abandon, along with their feelings of guilt, the advice of well-meaning friends and relatives who warn of spoiling the infant. In fact, there is no such thing as “spoiling” an infant.  You are simply responding to their needs.

Guidelines For Soothing

There is no “best” way to manage a crying baby. What works for one baby at any given moment may not be as effective for another. Each parent-infant dyad will have their own preferences.

1) Respond early to distress signals or crying

The earlier a cry is responded to, the greater the ease in soothing the baby. 

2) Learn to respond to the infant’s behavioural cues

Every infant has a repertoire of cues that signal a desire for interaction and cues that signal the need for a “time-out.” Infants who are overstimulated may demonstrate gaze aversion, arching, stiffness or flaccidity, yawning, or hiccuping. Afford babies ample opportunity for time to themselves. 

3) Introduce one stimulus at a time 

And carefully grade stimuli. Perhaps start by just holding the baby. Then quietly begin talking to the baby. Avoid the tendency for a three-ring circus of toys and noise.

4) Try to recreate experiences the baby would have enjoyed in utero

Swaddling or bundling, used for centuries across cultures, will afford the baby with the same all over sense of touch felt in the womb. 

Ensure that the infant’s hands are exposed and near his face/mouth. Avoid pinning arms by the baby’s sides whenever possible.

5) Encourage thumb/hand sucking 

Help to bring the baby’s hands to mouth. Even in utero the fetus practices getting hands to face/mouth. In fact, some babies are born with calluses on their thumbs from frequent sucking in utero. Importantly, an infant’s ability to suck influences his ability to soothe or organize himself. Sucking on a pacifier will help settle a baby, but it does require a caregiver to intervene. So, all the better to work on the baby’s own ability to bring hands to mouth to suck, and hence self-soothe, both of which are important developmental milestones

6) Give Boundaries while Cuddling 

Position the infant so that he can brace his feet against your arms or body. This, like the uterine wall, helps limit movement, thereby giving the infant a sense of soothing containment. 

While holding your baby in your arms, or even in an infant carrier, try to think of recreating the tucked fetal position your baby would have enjoyed in utero.  That means positioning with hands to mouth, and legs bent with feet supported, rather than dangling down.  Again, think of the uterine wall and how the baby was able to brace himself.  Use your body or the carrier to serve as boundaries, limiting extraneous movements, and affording the infant with a sense of containment.  

7) Apply (ventral/front) pressure 

Placing your hand firmly on the infant’s tummy and chest, referred to as ventral pressure, is a technique that facilitates soothing.

Holding your infant against your chest provides ventral pressure.  Again, take special care to ensure the baby’s hands are positioned at their mouth. Make sure the baby is able to breathe in this position. 

You can also hold your baby over the length of your forearm such that the baby’s tummy and chest rest along the length of your forearm; the baby’s head may rest in your hand, legs are on either side of your elbow. 

Tummy time, in addition to facilitating development, also affords babies with ventral pressure.

8) Infant Carriers 

Infant Carriers also provide ventral pressure, especially if the baby is worn with their tummy to your chest. If using carriers, ensure your baby’s face is visible and kissable at all times and that the baby’s face is not pressed into the fabric of the carrier or sling, your body, or clothing. 

Infant Carriers are wonderful in that they allow babies to settle to the reassuring sounds of a heartbeat and respiration.

As the infant is carried, vestibular stimulation is also provided which simulates movements experienced in utero while mom was walking and moving.

9) Rhythmic Motions for Soothing

Parents will usually instinctively rock with some form of rhythm as they hold their baby. It may seem unnatural at first, but if you listen to your instincts you will likely find just the right rhythm that soothes your baby.  

Keep the baby close to your body and try to be steady and consistent in the beat or rhythm. This will help avoid triggering the Moro or Startle Reflex. 

Sometimes a change in pattern is what will help.  

You may need to get up and move and walk about the room.  Babies appear to be programmed for this type of calming motion as it simulates movements the baby would have experienced in utero.  Typically it is instinctive to pick up, carry and start to walk with a crying baby. 

Vertical movement can often seemingly magically calm a crying baby.  It is thought that this is akin to movement the baby would have experienced in utero, moving up and down rhythmically as the mother walked. This technique entails either holding the baby slightly away from your body and slowly and rhythmically moving them up and down in space, or holding the baby closely and moving yourself up and down by rhythmically bending and straightening your knees. 

Remember that this works best when the baby is in that flexed or tucked fetal position, so use your hands to achieve that posture, or swaddle the baby to maintain that contained posture with hands at the mouth. 

10) Rhythmic stroking or patting 

These are two techniques that will invariably soothe an infant. 

Infants will have preferences as to where they like to be stroked; for some, it may be stroking the head and for others, it may be stroking the infant’s back.  

Find the touch that works best for your baby. Typically, firm pressure, as opposed to light touch, is best.  A light touch can often be irritating or alerting.  It helps to understand this concept by thinking of a spider crawling over your skin as being akin to light touch and irritation, and a firm, confident hand as one of support and comfort. 

Patting rhythmically at the infant’s bottom or back can be very soothing. 

11) Use Audio Recordings 

Use recordings of music to help settle infants. 

Sounds that a baby might hear in the womb such as the mother’s heartbeat, whooshing blood and digestive system noises might help settle the baby. 

Recordings of parent or sibling voices may be soothing and give parents a break. The use of “white noise” may help soothe the infant by blocking out changing minor internal or external stimuli. Commercially available “white noise makers” exist, but recordings of vacuum cleaners, hairdryers, or running water may prove just as helpful.

Babies cry for so many reasons and soothing the fussy baby can, indeed, be a challenge. However, paying close attention to the cues of the infant, and attempting to recreate some of the experiences enjoyed in utero will go a long way towards soothing a fussy newborn. 

It must be remembered that an infant’s cry is a signal to be responded to, not a habit to be broken. 

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