Common Sense and Well Tried Soothing Methods

Author: Ronald G. Barr, MDCM, FRCP(C)

mom holding baby

Now that you have become familiar with the common features and two important principles of soothing that are often used in all countries and all cultures, let’s consider a number of common soothing methods that parents and caregivers have used to calm their infants.

As you may imagine, there are hundreds of options. As an example, cultures around the world have developed many methods for carrying their infants. Some of these include different ways of swaddling their infants, some of these include different kinds of baby carriers or slings, and some of these just include carrying your baby around in your arms. When you think about the carrying methods that you or others have used, you will probably notice that your carrying technique incorporates many of the common features of soothing, for example:

  1. Carrying often includes changes of position;
  2. Carrying often (but not always) includes looking at your baby and him/her looking at you, increasing eye-to-eye contact as well as human stimulation;
  3. Carrying includes many sensations including touches, smells, sights and, if you talk while carrying your baby, sounds;
  4. Carrying includes closeness with the baby's mother or parent;
  5. If you are walking around with your baby, the walking introduces rhythm into the baby's calming experience.

And, of course, the two principles of soothing will be part of it: carrying works some of the time, but it doesn't work all of the time; and carrying is something that you can do all of the time, not just in response to the baby's crying.

Common soothing methods in the Period of PURPLE Crying.
In another section of this website, there is a description of the Period of PURPLE Crying program. The program materials describe in a very straightforward way what a parent or a caregiver can expect a new baby’s crying to be like in the first weeks and months of life. This is important because, as anyone who reads the booklet or watches the video will learn, the crying of new babies will increase in the first weeks and months of life before it decreases.

So, as a starting point, let’s talk about soothing methods from the Period of PURPLE Crying materials. The booklet contains a section about what is appropriate to do if a baby is crying a lot. It suggests three action steps, and the First Action Step is about soothing. The first action step says that caregivers should:

"Increase the comfort, carry, walk and talk responses with their infants."

Why is this important to do? Well, there are two main reasons. The first is that it is a reminder for caregivers to do all the great soothing things that they already know, but to increase the amount or number of times they soothe their baby. In other words, pick up your baby more often, carry them around more often, sing to them and gently pat and stroke them more often. This is because the more you do these things, the more likely it will be that you will be able to calm your baby. “Comforting” might involve wrapping your baby in a blanket, or just holding your baby in your arms. “Carrying” includes holding, contact and closeness. “Walking” includes all of those as well as introducing a rhythm to your movements. You may also want to move your body to the rhythm of the beats in music while carrying and comforting your baby. “Talking” includes adding a human voice, perhaps saying or singing the same things over and over to a melody.

"Pick up your baby more often, carry them around more often, sing to them and gently pat and stroke them more often. This is because the more you do these things the more likely it will be that
you will be able to calm to your baby."

The second reason comes from the soothing principle that doing these soothing methods when your infant is not crying will make them even more effective by keeping your infant calmer once it stops crying. So, if you begin using these comfort, carry, walk and talk methods when your infant is crying, it is helpful to continue to use them after the baby has become calm. This can help to prevent the crying from beginning again. Many mothers put the baby down again as soon as it stops crying, but continuing to use soothing methods for a while afterward should help your baby stay calm.

It is good to experiment with various methods and see what works at the time. It is also important to see what makes you feel good as you try them. Some parents have said that just having a list to go through gives them “something to try” or “something to do,” even if it does not work all the time. Calming yourself down by trying things can be as important as calming your baby down.

"Some parents have said that just having a list to go through gives them
“something to try” or “something to do,” even if it does not work all the time."

It is very important, however, not to let yourself get frustrated while trying these things. Remember, it is not your fault or your baby’s fault. That is why there is a second action step. The second action step says that, IF you get frustrated because the crying does not stop, it is OK to put the baby down in a safe place and walk away for awhile, and then come back and check on your baby when you have had a chance to become calmer.

Other common methods
Now let's talk about other common methods that many parents use. Some of these methods are built on the idea of providing "white noise." White noise comes in lots of forms. We have already mentioned the sound of an airplane taking off that parents and their babies experience if they live near an airport. Other parents have found that the sound of the machine that provides air to fish tanks (an aerator) is an effective soothing technique. If you have such a fish tank, it is worth putting your baby's crib near the fish tank when the aerator is on to see if it calms your baby. Another source of white noise that almost every home has is a vacuum cleaner. Mothers often report that their infant stops crying when they vacuum around the house. Fans will sometimes do the same thing. In addition, fans provide a source of gentle "contact" from the air that moves over the infant.

"Mothers often report that their infant stops crying when they vacuum around the house."

Another technique that parents have suggested is putting a baby on a clothes dryer when it is running. This probably “works” because of the white noise and the constant jiggling motion that the clothes dryer provides. However, parents need to know that this can be very dangerous, as the motion of the dryer can result in the baby falling off the dryer and onto the floor. Another potentially dangerous situation can occur if a baby is put near a hair dryer that is running, especially if the baby can come into contact with the dryer and get burned.

Almost all parents who have a car have noticed that their baby will calm down and even go to sleep if they take their baby for a ride in the car. As you can imagine, a ride in a car includes "white noise" (car engine, street noises, and so on) as well as constant and the rhythmic movement we talked about before. Sometimes there is the background of familiar human voices from the other family members in the car. A car ride is often listed by parents as one of the most effective soothing strategies for their baby. In fact, it is so well known as a soothing strategy that, a few years ago, a major car company made a television advertisement in which dad took the baby to the car and drove around and around the block a few times. Not only did the car get many camera exposures, but the baby calmed down and went to sleep!

"A car ride is often listed by parents as one of the most effective soothing strategies for their baby"

Carrying your baby in a sling
I want to mention one more idea that can be helpful in providing soothing, and that is carrying a baby in a carrier worn close to the body of the parent, like a sling. As you might imagine, with the possible exception of feeding a baby (especially breastfeeding), there is probably nothing a parent can do that uses more of the common features of soothing. In addition, it is something that you can do when your baby is not crying that can help keep them calm.

It is only fair to say that the research studies that have been done on this technique have not always shown that increasing the amount of time you carry your baby will be effective in reducing the crying. One study of infants who came to pediatricians’ offices showed that parents (both mothers and fathers) who increased carrying their baby to more than three hours a day from three weeks of age reduced the overall amount of fussing and crying that their infants did by 43%. Another study looked only at healthy but very high crying infants (infants that cried for greater than three hours a day for greater than three days in one week—what most people would consider to be “colic”). In this study, parents who increased the carrying that they were already doing by 50% were not able to reduce the crying and fussing that their infants did compared to parents who continued the amount of carrying that they were doing already. So, it remains unclear why increased carrying was so effective in one study and not in the other.

It may have been that the parents in the second study needed to do even more carrying of their already high crying infants. It may have been that the increased carrying needed to begin earlier, before the high crying became established. Whatever the reason, it is not clear that carrying will work for all infants, although it seems very effective in some. Of course, this is what is said in the section "Principles of Soothing”: namely, that some soothing behaviors work some of the time, but nothing works all of the time. However, if it is convenient for you to use one of these carrier slings and it helps to calm your baby, then it is a good thing to try. It may have the extra benefit of making you feel closer to your baby and that you are doing something to help.

You may have heard that babies are more often carried and carried for longer in other societies, especially outside of North America and Europe. This is true. It is interesting that, in these societies, babies are often described as crying less. Actually, there have been some studies on carrying and crying in these societies. In general, that relationship is true: the babies in those societies do cry less than babies in North American societies. However, not all features of crying are reduced. One of the better documented studies was done with a group in Africa called the !Kung San. In this society, babies are carried pretty much all of the time in a sling called a kaross. Interestingly, the overall duration of crying and fussing was reduced by 50% relative to babies in North America and in Holland (where babies are not carried all of the time and carrying occurs more often in response to crying). However, Kung San infants still showed the increased crying pattern that is normal and common in the first few months of a baby’s life-- they cried the same number of times (that is, the frequency of crying was the same, but they did not cry as long when they did cry) and they still had inconsolable crying from time to time. So the increased carrying seems to help, but it does not take all of the crying and fussing away, even when parents carry their babies all of the time, as the !Kung San do.

10 Tips To Soothe Your Crying Infant

Author: National Center on Shaken Baby Syndrome

Many parents and caregivers ask what they can try to soothe their crying infant. The following is a list of practical things to try to calm your crying baby. It is important to remember that while many of these suggestions will work most of the time, nothing will work all of the time. When you begin to become very frustrated with a baby's crying, it is time to set the infant in a safe place and walk away. For tips to deal with frustration and anger click here.

The list above is not an all-inclusive list as there are many other things you can try to calm your baby's crying. Remember... while many of these techniques will work most of the time, nothing works all the time and that is okay. This does not mean there is anything wrong with you or your baby.