How to Calm a Fussy Baby Like a Pro
There is nothing better than bringing your newborn baby home, being able to sink into the couch and spend hours snuggling and relaxing with them. For some families though, that isn’t always a reality and they find themselves faced with an inconsolably fussy baby who has not stopped crying for hours on end. As a parent you want nothing more than to help them, but you may start to feel overwhelmed, and it can begin to make you feel very anxious about your parenting abilities when you have been attempting everything you can think of and nothing is working. After all, you brought this beautiful baby into the world, but naturally, you can’t help but question and wonder about your capabilities when this new little being will not settle in your loving embrace.
Where's my womb?
For some babies the transition is seemingless. They spend their 9 months in the womb and come out ready for the world. Unfortunately though, it isn’t always that easy. Some little ones really struggle with the birthing process and aren’t as prepared for the outside world.
Of course we know that babies are safe and surrounded by the amniotic fluid and swaddled by the uterine walls but did you know that the constant, loud rhythmic sound of the womb is louder than a vacuum cleaner? Crazy, right? While you are going about your day, the baby growing inside of you is being calmed by your constant movements causing them to be bounced and jiggled for many hours. Now, imagine how strange it is for a new infant to come out of that environment and into a still, quiet room, unwrapped and unsnuggled? This can be shocking to their sensitive systems. Some babies will not be able to tolerate this right away and may take some time to adjust causing a lot of upset in the meantime.
What is colic?
Colic is diagnosed when a baby cries for 3 hours a day, 3 times per week for 3 weeks. It is caused by under stimulation due to the fact that your baby has just come from an environment where they felt like they were held 24/7 surrounded by a lot of noise and movement all of the time. Dr. Harvey Karp states that perhaps babies who experience colic are reacting to a sensation called the gastrocolic reflex. Not to be confused with acid reflux. All of our bodies go through a process after eating, which is when signals are sent to start making room for more food. This is a reflex that most of us do not even feel however, some babies have an overreaction, causing them a lot of upset.
A technique for soothing infants
The Happiest Baby on the Block is a program designed by the world renowned pediatrician Dr. Harvey Karp. He created a technique for soothing infants from 0-4 months referred to as the 4th trimester and the 5 S’s. Mimicking the womb triggers a reflex called the calming reflex and can be an off-switch for crying. The 5 S’s include: swaddling, side/stomach position, shushing, swinging, and sucking.
Swaddling gives newborns the sense of the nurturing touch that they felt nonstop inside of the womb. Swaddling alone may not halt crying immediately but it does stop your baby from flailing and helps to focus their attention which prepares them for the other “S’s” that switch off the crying. It makes your infant feel secure and can also enable you to put them down so that you can have a minute to yourself.
- Remember to wrap baby tightly enough so that the blankets do not come free as well as making sure that the legs are loose enough so that the hips have room to flex and move.
- Remember to swaddle with arms down at the sides for full term infants as this will prevent their arms from startling which could wake them. It also prevents them from being able to free themselves of the swaddle causing loose blankets. *Pre term babies can be swaddled in the flex position (arms up) until they reach their due date.
- If the thought of perfecting the swaddle with a blanket intimidates you, swaddle bags are also a great option!
This position helps calm your newborn as it switches off the Moro “falling” reflex. It also imitates your baby’s position in the womb which begins to activate the calming reflex. This position is only for calming. You should always put your baby to sleep on their back.
- The football hold is a great way to achieve this position.
Some parents hesitate to shush as they feel that it is rude. This is not a shush as in to be quiet it is more of a calming shush to imitate the sounds that soothed them in the womb 24/7.
- Make sure that you match your baby’s intensity (otherwise they will not hear you.) Once they are calming, you can lower your intensity to match theirs.
- In order to keep the calming reflex activated, having white noise in the background will also help. Be sure to shush past the ear and not directly into it.
Once your baby has settled, here are some additional ways to maintain the sound without having to exhaust yourself by shushing for hours on end!
- A sound machine or CD with sounds from the womb or white noise
- A fan (kitchen fan may be loudest)
Rhythmic movement is one of the most powerful tools that we have to calm our babies. It mimics the jiggling in the womb which turns on motion sensors in the brain activating the calming reflex.
- When implementing the swinging/jiggling motion it is important to match your baby’s intensity. If your little one is really upset you can use more vigour when calming them in the beginning then you can slow down once baby is relaxed. The goal is to have their head bobbing a little like Jell-O, which is what triggers the calming reflex.
- Avoid putting your screaming baby in a swing as you will likely end up achieving nothing! When your baby is upset, they will not enjoy the swing. Instead, calm them first and then place them in to keep them calm. If they become upset again, grab the back of the swing and give it a jiggle for 20 seconds to reactivate the reflex. Then let it go again on the highest setting. It is a good idea to ensure their safety by securing them properly into the swing while keeping your baby’s arms wrapped to prevent them from whacking themselves which would cause them upset all over again. Make sure that the swing is reclined and not upright so that your baby’s neck and head are not doubled over preventing proper air supply.
- If the swing is not as effective as you would like or your arms are getting tired, you can also try baby wearing, brisk walks, dancing, rocking chairs, or rhythmic pats on the bottom which can also be very effective.
Once your baby starts to calm with the other S’s, it is time to introduce the last one. Sucking is a baby’s instinctive self-calming tool. Some babies are born with a tremendous need to suck. In the womb, they spend a great deal of time sucking during the last few months. It is easy for them because the soft walls of the uterus kept their hands conveniently right beside them. When they come out, their arms flail about and they do not have the coordination to be able to suck on their hands for more than a few seconds.
- Sucking can be on the breast, your finger or a pacifier
- Never dip a pacifier in honey or sugar
- Do not offer the pacifier when your baby is already upset (unless they take it by nature.) Instead, wait until they have calmed and then offer it.
- To get them to take it, you can slowly offer it to them and once they start to suck, gently tug it as if you are going to take it out. This will prompt them to suck harder to grasp it. You can practice this several times a day to strengthen their suck.
The techniques we’ve outlined above can do wonders in settling a fussy baby; however, if you are feeling overwhelmed and need to take a break it is always safest to hand the baby off to someone else for as long as needed or put them down in a safe place and take a minute to take a deep breath. Implementing these techniques not only help your little one but can also have a tremendous effect on your emotional well-being. When a parent can quickly and lovingly stop their little one from crying, it can help reduce or prevent postpartum mood disorder. If these techniques are not working effectively, plan a trip to your doctor to make sure that there are no other underlying health issues.