Imagine living in utopia. A place where you never feel anything but safe and comfortable. You never feel hungry. You never feel cold. You don’t even feel the discomfort of gas pain. Life. Is. Perfect.
Then, quite suddenly, you are in a very bright, cold, loud environment. There are uncomfortable feelings, painful feelings. Nothing feels safe. Nothing feels comfortable. Hunger. Gas. Needle pricks. Difficulty finding food. Everything is hard and scary. Except the smell of the body you were born from. The touch of any warm skin. The sound of a heartbeat or white noise. The relaxing sensation of sucking. The tight restriction of a swaddle blanket.
Newborn babies are driven by their senses of smell, touch and hearing. These three senses are specifically designed to keep baby near the breast and actively seeking the breast. Instinctively, all a baby knows if they are near the breast, they will survive.
If you want your baby to open thier eyes, dim the lights. If you want your baby to relax and sleep, lay them on your chest. If you want your baby to freak out and wake up, lay them alone in a cold bassinet.
Newborns display a unique set of reflexes that disappear in the first year of life. There are 4 important ones you need to know about:
Your baby doesn’t like or dislike things. Your baby doesn’t want or not want to do things. They are simply responding to reflex and stimuli in order to survive. Don’t make this personal, getting a baby to settle down means learning to calm their nervous system.
During the 4th trimester, your newborn baby will best be soothed when you help them feel safe and calm, similar to their womb experience.
We calm newborns using the 5 S’s as describe by Harvery Karp.
1. Tight boundaries (swaddle):
So, the swaddle is not something babies are a fan of getting into. In fact, they will probably fight you. But swaddling gives your baby the boundaries he needs to feel safe. In the womb, your baby moved, then felt the very tight hug from your belly and relaxed. You’ve seen your baby startle, right? When it looks like he was scared or is cold? He is just having a reflex that helps him check in and make sure he is safe in a person’s arms. If he startles and feels nothing, he gets really upset. Tight boundaries help.
Alternatively, you can create tight boundaries by wearing your baby in a wrap or sling style carrier. This tightly binds baby to your body, so it gives him boundaries and lets him know a person is holding him.
A note on hands-in versus hands-out: A lot of parents tell me, “He likes his hands out.” So they swaddle their baby with his hands out. I appreciate you trying to figure out what your newborn likes and doesn’t like, but, well, your baby doesn’t know those are his hands. They are right there next to his face on purpose so he reminds himself to eat by eliciting his root reflex. But they are also right there to constantly touch his face, which makes him root and thinks he wants to eat. They are also there for him to startle and hit himself in the face, claw his own eyes out and gag himself with, and then scream because someone just accosted him. If you want your baby to settle and sleep, tight boundaries in the fourth trimester. Hands. In. Trust me on this one.
Babies have a normal, appropriate need to suck. A lot. On your boob or on a pacifier, sucking soothes because it reassures a baby that his food is nearby and he is going to live. So, of course a baby wants to suck on the boob even when he isn’t hungry. Boob=Life. No boob = death. I am not being melodramatic. Newborns are melodramatic. If they don’t have a boob in their mouth, they feel unsafe. So, you either need to put a boob in their mouth or trick them into thinking there is a boob in their mouth.
If you aren’t ok with the baby being on the breast for both food and comfort (and this can be a moment to moment choice), consider a soother to help you out.
That means give him a pacifier. Please note, it can sometimes take a little bit of convincing to get a baby to take a pacifier.
3. Sway or movement:
“Sway,” as Dr. Karp calls it, means serious movement. Like, assertive (not aggressive) movement. Don’t shake the baby, of course, but it takes some serious movement to make a baby relax. This is where an exercise ball comes in handy because it is only time your high needs baby will let you sit down. If you sit and assertively bounce, bounce, bounce on that ball, he may just be fooled into thinking you are standing and walking. Otherwise, expect to walk and bounce and walk and bounce and walk and bounce and…
Loud, repetitive shushing. Vacuuming. A very loud bathroom fan. The bathtub water running. The hair dryer. Loud white noise reminds the baby of the sounds he heard in the womb. It was LOUD in there! So, typically, a loud “SHHHHHHH” will make your baby break his crying cycle long enough to look around and get a look on his face that seems to say, “Hey, I have heard that somewhere before.”
There is something about laying a baby on his side that makes him settle. I don’t know why. It just does.
It also seems to be particularly helpful if you hold the baby away from you on his side. That way his reflexes aren’t triggered to root toward a warm body.
Okay, so the magic comes when you put many of these into different combinations. My favorite is putting all five together like this:
- Tight swaddle hands in
- Lying on their side away facing away
- Pacifier held in place with a thumb
- Standing up and moving