When you have a new baby one of the most stressful things can be trying to figure out how to calm your baby down when they are upset.
Sometimes it is really obvious what they need, their nappy is dirty, they haven’t fed in a while or a noise startled them. But often it is not easy to figure out what they are trying to communicate.
Babies do not have a huge range of communication skills. They cry. That is really about all they have. So you as the parent are left trying to figure out what that cry might mean and sometimes that is a challenge!
Try and list all the reasons your baby might cry! There are endless possibilities from the serious – pain or illness – to the less serious – a breeze, an itchy label – but it is down to you to resolve.
First things first, check your baby doesn’t have a temperature or need a nappy change, offer a feed. If you are breastfeeding that can solve a lot of potential issues. Obviously hunger but also tiredness, a need to connect and cuddle, relieve pain or wind, to help them poo. Sometime the fact you picked your baby up is enough – they needed you. They might not know why but they needed you and there you are, ready for a snuggle and they are safe and happy again.
But what about the times you tried all those things and nothing, you still have an unsettled baby who you can’t seem to soothe.
In the early months your baby is adjusting to the massive shift that is life in the outside world compared to life in the womb. And life in the womb was good! All day and all night was warm and cosy, held nice and snug, hearing mum’s heartbeat and digestive system, being rocked off to sleep as you moved around, constant supply of food……basically every comfort you could imagine just when you need it.
Outside it is a harsh world! People want to put you on a cold, hard surface all on your own. It doesn’t move, it’s really quiet and everyone has gone. Yes you have just out your baby in their lovingly prepared sleep space but to them it is a scary place. Still, quiet and alone is not at all what a baby is used to and to calm them down we try and recreate the womb environment to help them feel safe and soothed.
1. Hold your baby close. If they have an uncomfortable tummy a side or stomach lying position is helpful. The tiger in the tree hold is great here. Being close to you is their safest place.
2. Sway or swing your baby. When you were pregnant they drifted off to sleep as you walked around. Remember how you didn’t notice so much movement on a busy day but when you sat down you felt them – they loved the movement. Recreate that swaying, rocking or bouncing feeling as you move side to side or up and down.
3. Ssssshhhhhh! In the uterus your baby had constant noise from your body. Leaving them in silence is unnerving so some white noise, like a ssssshhhhh sound can really help. You need to be louder than they are though. You might have a white noise toy or machine or you can try a vacuum or hairdryer. Of course there is an app or youtube version of white noise!
4. Swaddle. Before your baby was born they were held very snugly as the space for them grew smaller. They are used to their arms and legs being curled up and feeling held and supported. Babies are born with some reflexes, one of which is the moro, or startle, reflex. The one that causes little arms to fly out when you move them or try and lie them down. Using a swaddle can help baby feel more secure.
5. Sucking. Babies love to suck! Their suck reflex is calming for them so adding in sucking can really help too. This might be offering a breastfeed or you might choose to use a dummy but it could also be a clean knuckle for them to suck on (don’t put your finger in their mouth just the knuckle).
6. Fresh air. Sometimes a walk outside in the sling or pram can work wonders for both of you. I don’t know what it is about being outside – the light, the colours, moving trees, different noises? Maybe the movement of the sling or pram helps. It often works and it often helps you calm down too if you need it.
7. Water? If your baby loves water, a bath might help. Water often works wonders with older children but can calm babies too if they enjoy it.
As with adults, every baby is different. Some rarely cry and some just seem so unsettled without a clear reason why. That makes it so hard when you can’t fix a problem for them. You might hear about colic which is diagnosed in babies who cry for long periods, regularly but don’t have any medical concerns. It isn’t always the most helpful label as it still doesn’t really explain what is wrong or what to do about it.
Often babies with colic are screaming, red, arching their back and pulling legs up. Their feeds can be disrupted and all the cuddles, movement and sssshhhhh does nothing.
It is thought likely that there is a digestive element to colic, that it is wind or something causing pain in their tummies. Tummy massage can help – not done when they are in pain but at a time when they are relaxed and happy each day. Do you best with winding, and keep an eye on feeds that they are not taking in air or gulping milk down. If you are breastfeeding and are aware your flow is fast try settling yourself in a more laid back position or lie down so the flow slows a little and baby has more control.
All babies cry. It is their means of communication, that doesn’t make it any easier when you are the parent hearing them cry and feeling like you don’t know what to do. Fortunately it is often straightforward to figure out the solution or find the little tricks your baby likes. For the times when it is tough, when nothing seems to work it is ok to need a break and some breathing space. If you find there are times when your baby is unsettled maybe see if you can get some support, visitors dropping by at that time to give you a hand.
If all else fails it is ok to put your baby in a safe place and give yourself 5 minutes. Grab a drink of water (or whatever you want) and take some long, slow breaths. When you are a little calmer go back and pick up your baby. If you are getting stressed and tense your baby will pick up on it and make the whole process a lot harder.
And lastly, don’t blame yourself! Your baby crying, or you not feeling able to manage it, are absolutely not any indication of how ‘good’ a parent you are. Or how ‘good’ your baby is. You are figuring this out together, it is a huge learning curve and you are doing just brilliantly. One day this will be behind you and you can look back and see just how amazing you were at caring for your baby.