The reality is, with an infant, you have to accept some fussiness, some crying. In the early weeks and months, an awake baby needs your attention, but here’s how to confidently soothe a crying baby back to calm.
I have to admit, when I first heard of Harvey Karp’s “Happiest Baby on the Block” I actually rolled my eyes and thought, “How superlative. Seriously?” but then I saw Dr. Karp speak at a conference in 2006 and I was sold. Since then, I’ve used his 5 S’s technique for soothing more babies than I can count. I’ve taught it and recommended his books/DVD to oodles of parents and caregivers. It really is magical when done with attention to details.
These infant soothing skills fall into the category of “Things-I-Wish-I-Knew-When-My-Own-Kids-Were-Babies,” and here, I need to give a nod to my husband. When I raved to him about this fantastic trick to gets babies to sleep, he smiled. He told me that that was exactly what he’d done with each of our sweeties when they were fussing up a storm. He would quietly send me to nap and scoop up our wailing angel and he’d swaddle, shush and walk and jiggle. He described how their heads would shimmy and how predictably it worked. I believe many Dads, partners, and family members have perhaps used their own style of the 5 S’s, but, alas, we weren’t the ones to write the book.
The basic premise of “Happiest Baby on the Block” is that human babies are born too early and so in the “forth trimester” (the first three months of a newborn’s life) we need to recreate a womb-like environment for the baby. Before birth, a baby has been hearing Mom’s heartbeat, the swooshing of blood through her arteries, he’s been lulled and rolled into sleep as Mom moves, walks and goes about her daily life. Your baby has been folded up snugly, upside down (ideally) with his little limbs bumping into something with each movement.
The 5 S’s build this secure and familiar environment for your baby. I have to say, I only use four of his 5 S’s and even Dr. Karp calls the fifth S (sucking) “icing on the cake” explaining you can use it to help prolong a state of bliss for your baby, but truthfully, I never need it.
First, start with the basics, if you have a crying baby, go through the list, is baby hungry, needing new scenery, tired? If you have a well-fed, clean, dry baby, you can go ahead and try my adapted version of the 5 S’s to soothe a crying baby. These are my 3 S’s and a J (I also add an E … read on). Add these to your parenting toolkit.
Swaddle tightly and firmly. Many babies may appear to protest this step but once they’re swaddled into a bundle this kicks in what Dr. Karp calls the calming reflex. It also snuggles baby into a cozy cocoon which makes the following steps easier to execute.
Swaddling also helps to tame the startle reflex which often causes babies to wake themselves, instead their limbs press up against the cloth, just like inside of mama. Parents (or grandparents) may project their adult feelings onto a baby, we think how much we would hate to be wrapped up and not be able to access our hands, but even though a baby may fuss through the swaddling part, I’ve never seen a baby who doesn’t relax and rest into it once I work through the next 3 steps. Here’s a meta-analysis on swaddling if you’re interested. (I like the Miracle Blanket for swaddling – you can click the ad in the side bar to see it and learn more.)
Babies who are even a little bit “opened,” a little tipped toward their backs, will be much harder to settle. Hold your baby over one forearm angled onto her side and closer to her stomach. I sometimes get the baby in a solid side-toward-stomach position then lean my own body backwards slightly to have her tipped even more toward her tummy.
You can also do this sitting on a ball or couch, laying a baby on your lap or lifting her toward your mouth, but I find that to really get soothe a crying baby, I tend to walk and move, then as the baby calms, I can slow, and eventually sit. Try both ways to find what works best for you and your baby(ies).
The louder the baby is crying, the louder you must shush. Don’t worry, your baby is used to the high decibels in utero. Position his head resting in your palm, fully supported, and bring him to your mouth shushing steadily past his ear. As baby calms, you can lessen your volume and eventually taper off. Use this as a bit of an abs exercise for yourself at the same time. There is a wonderful hiss-compress exercise that entails strong, near-spitting exhales to tone the deep transverse abdominal muscles, so you can get an added benefit while soothing your infant.
Swinging (aka Jello-O Jiggle)
OK, so I get the word had to start with “S” to be a nice, marketable package, but I’ve changed the name of this one. I call this the “Jell-O Jiggle.” With baby’s head completely supported in your palm or the crook of your arm, you bounce a bit and baby’s head will jiggle gently. Just watch her eyes roll back as she surrenders. Like the shushing, the more disorganized and upset the baby is, the more you need to move, quickly, deliberately, and with an exaggerated “Sha-Na-Na” swagger to your step. For those of you not old enough to understand that reference, perhaps you can relate to re-runs of “Welcome Back, Kotter.” The idea is to copy that 70’s cool-guy prance and strut with your baby.
I don’t ever use this so I don’t have much to recommend here. Pacifiers are another whole topic and can interfere with breastfeeding and, down the road, sleep. They can also be a family’s saving grace (on a side note, when you’re in survival mode, you do what you’ve got to do, things can be “fixed” or undone later). This is something for each family to decide individually.
Using a pinky could be acceptable to some families but in certain positions, there isn’t an easy, comfortable way to put anything into a baby’s mouth (and as the doula, I wouldn’t be using my fingers, anyway). I’ve gotten so many babies to sleep and back to sleep with the first four steps that I can pretty safely say that you’re good to go if you master those: 3 S’s and a J!
One point to mention is that very often, someone other than Mom is able to use these techniques effectively and Mom struggles.
This is especially true with a nursing Mom, she has her own secret weapons to soothe a crying baby and her baby wants her to use them! I want Moms not to be discouraged or to feel any guilt (I’m all about guilt-free parenting) as it’s not uncommon for this system to be harder for a Mom to use, but she should try it anyway and add it to her soothing tool bag.
At any point, if your baby is still not settling, be sure that he’s not hungry, then redouble your efforts, snug up the swaddle, walk a little quicker, or bend your knees a bit more as you saunter, move baby more to her tummy, shush just a bit louder. Over-exaggerate each part a bit and you’ll have a sweetly sleeping (or at least a contented awake) little baby.
My last step is “E.” Enjoy your baby. Enjoy her smell, her peaceful face, her touch, the weight of her dozing body in your arms. Allow yourself the time to enjoy the gift of your baby.