Being up in the night with a fussy baby is quite possibly one of the most emotional times of a new mother’s life. As a parent, you want to figure out why your baby is fussy, or inconsolable, or screaming at the top of her lungs, and no, there is no such thing as colic. After raising four children, I most certainly do not have all of the answers. All that I know is what worked for me, what didn’t work for me, and what I learned along the way. Here are the things that have helped us to calm our fussy (or inconsolable or screaming) newborns. I hope that some of them are helpful to you!
This one is so basic and so obvious, but I just had to put it first because breastfeeding has always been my number one go-to method for soothing a fussy newborn. As my babies have gotten older, some have liked to be nursed to sleep and some have not, but they would all nurse to sleep when they were newborns, and I think that this is a pretty universal thing. I have always nursed my babies on demand, so I totally feel like a human pacifier, but this way, not only are their bellies full, they are soothed as well.
2. Comfortable Baby
When my babies are fussy, the first thing I do is make sure they are not too warm or too cold. Babies typically need to dress in one more layer than we do to keep warm. So if you’re hanging out in a t-shirt, your baby will probably want something long sleeved. I typically like to keep my babies a little under-dressed, however, so that I can wrap them up in one of my homemade silky blankets!
Next, there are all kinds of little things that might be bothering your baby like: a little hair wrapped tightly around a finger, a tag rubbing the wrong way, or a diaper accidentally put on too tight. When my babies have been fussy, I always give them a physical once over to make sure their discomfort isn’t coming from some quick physical fix.
3. Water Drop Trick
I learned this little trick from my most recent midwife, Laurie Zoyiopoulos, who learned it from some of her Amish clients. When the Amish are dealing with a fussy newborn, they simply give him a little bit of water, and it calms him down right away. Maybe it’s because the colostrum just isn’t satisfying enough, or maybe it helps to soothe an upset tummy, but for whatever reason, this trick really really works! When Julian would get really fussy and nothing else would soothe him, I would give him a little dropper of water, and he would calm right down. My husband really appreciated knowing this trick as well!
4. Gassy Baby
Many times, babies 0-3 months cry because of gas pains. In addition to having to use their entire digestive system for the first time, they might have gas and not be able to get rid of it. This can make for a very fussy and inconsolable baby! If your baby is gassy, it might help to gently rub her tummy, pump her legs (from a straight position to pushed right into his stomach), or do bicycle legs to get the gas out. You might like to try the Windi if you’re really desperate, although I tried it, it was weird, and it didn’t really work, but hey, you might get lucky! And although burping gas is different from intestinal gas, I’m going to go ahead give a little reminder about burping after every feeding. (Something I only remember as I am being puked on!)
5. Colic Calm
Colic Calm is a homeopathic oral remedy designed to help with colic, stomach pains, reflux, and gas. It is made with charcoal, so don’t be surprised by the black color (or your baby’s black poop). I wouldn’t say that this was a miracle worker or anything, but when I was overtired and up in the night with a fussy newborn and out of ideas for how to calm him down, it really helped me out. The sweet taste seemed to shock him out of crying for a bit anyways which gave me time to try another strategy to calm him down, and it did seem to settle his tummy a bit. Hyland’s Colic tablets work pretty well too.
6. Overtired Baby
I totally had the misconception with our firstborn Ruby that if I kept her up more during the day, she would sleep better at night, but that was absolutely not the case! Babies don’t develop their circadian rhythms (when they can differentiate between day and night) until 4-6 weeks, so until that happens, you just have to be prepared for them to be awake in the night. The best rule of thumb to remember with babies and sleep is that the more they sleep, the better they’ll sleep. Don’t try to put them on any schedule. Just feed them on demand and let them sleep when they want to sleep. Look for signs of them being tired and help them to fall asleep before they get overtired. Also, know that little babies will probably not be able to stay awake for more than an hour and a half at a time, and never ever wake a sleeping baby!
7. Harvey Karp’s “Happiest Baby“
In his book and video, The Happiest Baby on the Block: The New Way to Calm Crying and Help Your Baby Sleep Longer, Harvey Karp explains how the best way to calm your newborn and get her to sleep is by re-creating the noises, movement, and snug environment of the womb. (Check out this old grainy video to see the basic ideas.)
- Swaddle: These cloths are great for swaddling, but really any receiving blanket will do. (Just make sure that you are following the guidelines for the new swaddle that keep the legs more free so that your baby doesn’t get hip dysplasia. Watch this video to see the proper way to swaddle.)
- Side or Stomach Position: Because of the newer recommendations to have babies sleep on their backs to reduce the risk of SIDS, stomach sleeping isn’t really done as much as it used to be. I agree that newborns can’t move their heads and so if they fall asleep on their stomachs and their airways are restricted, it could be fatal, but another reason the stomach sleeping isn’t recommended is because they sleep soooooooo deeply this way and a lighter sleeping baby has less chance of SIDS. Harvey Karp advises that you use this strategy while holding the baby to help her fall asleep, but then place her on her back to lie her down. The side lying position is perfect for nursing.
- Shushing: A harsh shushing sound mimics the sound of your blood flow that your baby heard in the womb. This is why using a box fan for white noise is so great, but if you need to take things to the next level, this shushing technique is really cool and my favorite one of the bunch. Basically, you get really close to the baby’s ear and make a shushing sound as loud as you can and for as long as you can. Because doing this repeatedly will make a person pass out, it’s nice to have some back up and take turns. My husband and I used this all the time with our firstborn and intermittently with the others.
- Swinging: When you were pregnant, did you notice how your baby would always sleep when you were out and about and moving around, but then would wake up as soon as you settled down for the night? If you can recreate the swaying, swinging motion that your baby got used to in the womb, he will feel right at home and hopefully settle down. I find it’s best to get really creative with this until you find a swinging motion that your baby really likes. I got the best workout with my third child, Ophelia, because she really liked this crazy swinging, dipping, slow-slow-quick-quick, small step-large step, swing high-swing low movement.
- Sucking: Sucking releases oxytocin (the bonding hormone) in both the mother and the baby, which is nature’s way of rewarding them for breastfeeding. In between feedings, newborns might also enjoy sucking on your pinkie (nail side down). I would avoid using a pacifier for the first few weeks because it can create nipple confusion and make breastfeeding more difficult (trust me!), but once breastfeeding is established, pacifiers are just fine. There is no evidence that pacifiers affect baby teeth and they have actually been proven to reduce SIDS. Just look for some that are BPA free.
8. Keep Moving
Each of our babies has had a different method of movement that they have enjoyed, and I think it had to do not only with their personalities, but our home size (we’ve moved a lot), my energy level, who else was around, etc. With Ruby being our first, we were able to put her in a wrap or in the stroller and go for long walks. With Elliot, we took turns bouncing him on our exercise ball. Ophelia liked to be upright and perched on my shoulder as I would walk laps around the house, or she liked it when I danced. And then with Julian, it was back to the exercise ball. Basically, you’ll have to experiment with a lot of different methods of movement to get things just right, but when you find that “sweet spot”, you’ll know it! (If you get too tired holding them, a nice swing like this or this or a vibrating bassinet like this can be really helpful too.)
9. Soothing Atmosphere
It helps to have an environment that exudes calm with soft lighting, soft music, and soft voices. I like playing my Pandora station on shuffle with the Enya, Sigur Ros, Ambient Music, and Joshua Radin. It is definitely worth the $30/year subscription to have this be ad free. Then, I like to turn the volume off and play any kind of music on itunes with the visualizer turned on. The visuals are very mesmerizing and every one of our kids have enjoyed watching them as they fell asleep. I also really like all of the Rockabye Baby! Lullaby Renditions. In addition, I always have the white noise of a box fan in every room that the baby could be sleeping in. It sounds very “womb-like”.
As for lighting, red lights are the best because they keep the pupils from dilating which allows your baby to remain in a sleepy state while allowing you to see. Something like this salt lamp or this tree lamp (we unscrew the other bulbs so only the reddish lights are on) would be perfect. The soft glow of a fireplace in the winter is great too!
10. The Power of Touch
Every one of our babies has seemed to have different preferences for touch, but they have all loved head and face rubs. When they start to get sleepy, I’ll gently run my fingers along the bridge of their nose and gently over their eyes as I tenderly encourage them to close. Kind of like in this video, although it’s never worked this perfectly for me! They have all also loved it when I’ve rubbed their heads. Some babies have enjoyed infant massages too.
We took Julian to get some cranial sacral therapy (which is a light touch method of massage that helps to align the body, specifically the central nervous system) when he was a few weeks old to see if it would help with his tongue tie (it didn’t), but it made him the the super chillest baby afterwards. Going through the birth canal or being delivered by cesarean can misalign a baby’s delicate structure and cranial sacral therapy helps to realign everything. I highly recommend this procedure for every baby after birth! Just ask a local chiropractor for a referral.
11. Check Your Diet
Whatever you eat, your baby eats too. Whenever she was in your womb, your baby had the placenta to filter your food. Now things are entering her little body with it’s immature digestive system, and she can’t process things like you can. I mean, for the most part, she got used to whatever diet you consumed while pregnant, so most of the foods you ate then should be okay now. But there are two things you really need to watch out for during the first three months and that’s coffee and alcohol. Your baby can’t really process either of these. If you comb the Internet, you’ll find articles saying that they do affect babies or they don’t, and most say that they are okay in moderation, but I’ll tell you that in my experience, I have found it is best to avoid them completely for the first 5-6 months.
When we had our 6 week check up for Ophelia with our midwife, Sarah Badger, and I told her that I was going through a “witching hour” with her every night at the same time, she started asking me about my diet. Then, she told me about coffee’s half life and how babies weren’t good at processing caffeine. So I cut the coffee and switched to teeccino, and it was like a miracle. After a few days, her nightly fussiness completely stopped. I was able to pick up the coffee again (in moderation) when she was about 4-5 months old.
12. What Babies’ Cries Mean
With her photographic memory, years as an opera singer, and experience as a mother, Priscilla Dunstan has figured out how to decipher the meaning of babies’ cries from 0-3 months. Now, keep in mind that by the time a baby is crying, you’ve already missed the other cues showing you what the baby needed, but this is great as a kind of “last resort”. Watch her entire video with examples on Oprah here.
The five sounds in the Dunstan Baby Language are:
• “Neh” – meaning, “I’m hungry”
• “Owh” – meaning, “I’m tired”
• “Heh” – meaning, “I’m uncomfortable”
• “Eairh” – meaning, “I have lower gas”
• “Eh” – meaning, “I need to burp”
13. Keep Calm
When you’re super duper tired and more than anything in the world, you just want to lay your head down on your soft pillow and drift off to sleep, that is of course the time when your little one is going to want to be awake for a couple of hours. So, rather than let yourself get mad or frustrated about it, just know that it’s going to happen, and give your self something exciting to look forward to (besides of course being up with your most precious angel).
After every baby, I’ve been able to indulge in my “guilty pleasure” shows that my husband would never in a million years want to watch with me (although if he’s up in the night with me, he will). After Ruby was born, I watched just about all ten seasons of America’s Next Top Model and quite a few seasons of Gossip Girl. After Elliot was born, it was Jersey Shore. After Ophelia was born, I watched a lot of documentaries and made posters about health and nutrition to display my learning around the house. (What can I say? I got really ambitious!) And after Julian was born, I totally got into Reign and, of course, some late night blogging.
I would also make sure to always have some Ghirardelli dark chocolate chips on hand to snack on and a kombucha, or maybe I would grab a few freshly baked cookies and a big glass or milk, or maybe even some yummy tea or teccino with heavy cream…any little treat that would make me happy! When I do these things, I actually start to look forward to this special and sacred time. The house is quiet, everyone else is asleep, there is no work to be done, and I get to bond with my precious little baby while doing something that I love, what could be better?
14. Rotate Strategies
I think one of the most important things to remember when dealing with a fussy baby is to keep trying something new. Not right away, of course, you want to give each technique a chance to work, but if after a bit of time, your baby is still fussy, then try something else. The worst thing to do is to get in a rut where you keep doing the same things over and over even though they’re not working. Even if it’s as simple as switching from one side to the other during breastfeeding or going from bouncing on the exercise ball to dancing. Just keep trying something new until you find one or two things that you can rotate back and forth with creating sort of a predictable pattern. You kind of need to let your mind zone out a bit and follow through with these strategies even after your baby has calmed down. Keep moving, or rocking, or bouncing until you KNOW that your little one is asleep or at least really calmed down.
15. Know When to Take a Break
There WILL come a time, at some point, that you feel like you have reached your wit’s end. It will be after you are so tired that you just can’t keep your eyes open anymore, and before you know it you’ll be bawling like a little baby yourself (or about to and holding it in like a champ), and then you’ll just start asking your baby, “Why? Why won’t you sleep???” And when you feel yourself getting frustrated and angry, you need to know that it’s okay to take a minute to collect yourself. Set the baby down somewhere safe (crib, changing table, floor), and just walk away for a minute. Maybe your loving spouse is there and can hold the baby for you while you get some fresh air and take a few big breaths. It’s okay if he cries for a minute. You’re going to be right back.
There, now that you’ve had just a minute away, you can come back and look at your poor sweet babe, who in all honesty is suffering way more than you are. He needs you and yes, it’s overwhelming, and frustrating, and scary, and all of those things wrapped into one, but you can do this. You were made to do this.
16. Make a Plan
If things are just not working, it’s very helpful to be able to talk to someone about exactly what you are going through. Sometimes it just feels good to vent a little, and sometimes when you hear yourself talk, it helps you to figure out a solution. If you can identify one little thing that you can change or do differently, it will give you hope that you won’t have to go through a tough night like that again. I mean, chances are that you will, but if you keep making a plan, at least you won’t fall into the rut where you, “keep doing things exactly the same and expect different results”.
Even if your budget is tight, if buying something on Amazon like this baby swing, Moby wrap, Nose Frida, or Colic Calm, will make you feel better, do it. It’s worth it. Having hope is an amazing thing. It keeps you from slipping into depression, and a happy momma is a good momma.
17. Is There Another Problem?
Sometimes a tongue tie or a lip tie can be causing breastfeeding problems. Check out my blog: How to Identify and Deal with Lip Tie and Tongue Tie to see how this dealing with this helped us. You also could be dealing with thrush. Check out my blog: How to Identify and Treat Oral Thrush in Babies. There can also be a myriad of other problems, and I know that you won’t rest (literally) until you find the answer!
With our firstborn, Ruby, we actually called 911 once when she wouldn’t stop crying for four hours straight. We tried calling our pediatrician whose answering machine said to call 911 if we couldn’t get through to him and there was an urgent concern, which there was, and so we did. So, then came the sirens, the fire truck, and four fully clad firefighters barging into our little one bedroom condo on the third floor. Of course, from the complete shock of it all, Ruby stopped crying as soon as they approached her. I could tell one of the firefighters was holding back a laugh when he questioned, “First time parents?” Oh boy!
We’ve come a long way since then in the last five years, and if we had known then what we know now, I’ll bet we could have eliminated a lot of tears…on both ends! Some might say that the right of passage for new parents is to forge through it alone and figure things out for themselves, but if I had known someone who had raised four happy healthy babies that were all alive and well when I was figuring things out with Ruby, I would have loved to have heard her tips and tricks! There is a big difference between “I know best.” and “This is what has worked for me.” I hope that as mothers (and fathers), we can share the things that work best for us and create a community of support that transcends all other differences as we embark on this wonderful journey of parenthood…together.