How can parents help babies learn to calm themselves?

Q: My baby cries a lot and I want to help her calm herself. How do I do this?

A: In discussions about helping babies learn to fall asleep on their own, you may hear a lot about self-soothing. The term can sometimes be interpreted as a parent letting a baby cry or ignoring their crying. This is absolutely not true.

Teaching babies calming strategies gives them an important life skill. By leading by example and instilling good coping skills from the start, babies become happy, well-adjusted children.

Learning how to calm yourself involves a learning curve for both you and your baby. For example, if your baby is extremely irritable, he may be hungry (then you should feed him) or be very tired (then you should try to help him sleep). If you think your baby is in pain, you need to address it.

If all this has been ruled out and your baby is being fed, changed and well rested but fussy, you can try a series of calming techniques listed below.

If your baby cries all too often (which seems like all the time!), you may have the instinct to pick it up right away. Instead, next time, try to slow down and take steps to really learn more about your baby and what he needs. Try each technique slowly and make sure to pause to see how your baby reacts.

The order of progress is important because you will be doing less at the beginning using just your voice and more at the end when you are holding and possibly feeding your baby. The goal is for your baby to calm down with less intervention from you, and not to hold your baby all day, which often happens with fussy babies.

Here’s the progress of the CALM Baby method:

• Look at your baby.

• Look at your baby and talk to him.

• Place one hand on their stomach or chest.

• Keep their arms facing the body or curl their legs up towards their stomach.

• Roll them on their side (only when awake).

• Pick up your baby and hold him by your shoulder, but don’t move yet.

• Hold and cradle your baby.

• Swaddle and cradle your baby.

• Place a pacifier in their mouth or help them bring their hand or thumb to their mouth.

• Feed them if you think this will help.

Other strategies you can use include massaging their backs while holding them, before singing, walking with them, and using white noise. When babies are extremely fussy, we tend to try many things to help them calm down. But sometimes that means adding more stimulation to an already overloaded sensory system, and this can backfire.

If babies are inconsolable, we recommend that parents try one strategy for about five minutes before moving on to the next. This allows your baby to process the sensations and has time to settle down.

Other things to try include getting up and holding your baby tightly while they suck on a pacifier, silence or pet them, and swaddle and rock them. Do not try all strategies at once or too quickly, or they will become overstimulated.

You can also try reducing the intensity of the interaction; talk more calmly, move more slowly, use less animation in your face. Try to stick to one method for five minutes; if it doesn’t help calm your baby, move on to another strategy and give it five minutes. Try the strategy every time your baby cries and do this for at least a day to see if it helps your baby to make a change. If you think a particular strategy will work some of the time, try that one first.

As babies get older, their crying changes, and so do your strategies for helping them calm down. Sometimes parents find a strategy that works well with their baby, such as doing squats with their baby in their arms, that is much harder to perform with an older, heavier baby. Be open to trying something else that may be more appropriate or safer for your baby as they grow.
If you and your baby are still frustrated, more resources may help.

Consider contacting a pediatric occupational therapist who specializes in treating infants, an infant mental health specialist, or a child psychologist. These professionals can help you understand your baby, help you learn to read their cues, and help you promote self-regulation.

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