Trying to calm a fussy, or inconsolable, or screaming newborn can be a very stressful time for parents. Throughout the pregnancy, the focus is most likely on the growth of the baby, preparations for birth, and setting up the nursery. Being up in the night with a fussy and inconsolable baby is probably not something a new parent thinks to plan for…but it should be.
With our first born, Ruby, we were blindsided by her fussiness and felt like we didn’t have enough tricks up our sleeves to calm her down.
I remember one night, after she had been screaming and inconsolable for hours and hours, we called 9-1-1 (after trying the pediatrician first). When the firefighters came stomping up our three flights of stairs and barged into our little condo, Ruby was instantly mesmerized and of course stopped crying. I saw the firefighter chuckle to themselves and heard them make some comments to each other about new parents. It’s funny now, but I was sleep deprived and terrified then that something might be dreadfully wrong.
After Ruby, we learned many more ways to calm fussy babies besides going for long walks or drives, but it wasn’t until after baby number five that I’ve finally feel like I have a full arsenal of ways to calm fussy babies at my fingertips.
One of the most important pieces of advice I have is to be proactive. Many of the tips and tricks I’ll share have to do with preventing fussiness and the rest will give you a bag of tricks to pull from if and when your baby is fussy.
1. Avoid Coffee
I’ve never completely eliminated coffee while breastfeeding until Jack, and let me tell you it has made a WORLD of difference. When I learned that the half life of caffeine elimination in a newborn was 97.5 hours, I was finally convinced to give up the java. With every other baby, I just expected that being up in the night was a normal part of caring for a new baby. Jack is almost two months old now, and I haven’t been up in the night even once with him. If you’re looking for a good coffee substitute, I recommend teeccino.
2. Chiropractic Care
The other reason why I think Jack is so calm is because we took him to a chiropractor shortly after he was born. I was having trouble nursing him on the left side, and apparently it was due to a misalignment in his neck. (During birth he was posterior, turned into the correct position right as I was about to push, and was born very quickly – all of which probably contributed to the misalignment.)
For the procedure, the chiropractor laid him on his back for the adjustment (which was basically like a massage), and he was very calm and happy during the whole thing. Afterwards, he nursed like a champ on both sides. When looking for a chiropractor, I advise looking for a holistic one who specializes in working with infants.
Check out this amazing video of an infant getting immediate relief after chiropractic care.
3. CranioSacral Therapy
CranioSacral therapy (CST) is a gentle, noninvasive form of bodywork that addresses the bones of the head, spinal column, and sacrum with the goal of releasing compression in those areas to alleviate pain. It is especially helpful for babies who seem unwilling or unable to nurse properly. When Julian was a newborn, we took him to a CranioSacral practitioner to help him with his tongue tie. It didn’t really help with the tongue tie, but we noticed a huge difference in how calm he was 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.
4. Honor the 4th Trimester
After spending nine months in the womb, the outside world must be a real shock for a new baby. By making the outside environment as “womb-like” as possible, it will help to prevent fussiness and create a smooth transition.
- Skin to Skin: I love doing skin to skin as much as possible after birth until my babies are adjusted. It helps with nursing, bonding, and maintains the same comforts as the womb.
- Feeding on Demand: There is no need to worry about a feeding schedule, just nurse whenever your baby is hungry. Newborns generally need to nurse about every two hours, but may cluster feed at certain times and sleep longer and not eat for longer times.
- Baby Wearing: Using a baby sling or carrier is a great way to keep your baby close so he or she can be close to your skin, beating heart, the sound of your voice, and the gentle swaying of your motions. My favorite carriers are the Moby Wrap, a ring sling, and an Ergo Carrier with an infant insert.
- Co-Sleeping: Feeding on demand is made much easier by co-sleeping. In most parts of the world (except the United States), co-sleeping is the norm. New research shows how it’s actually safer than putting a baby in a separate room and bed.
I find it fascinating that in other more primitive cultures, fussy and crying babies are a rarity. This is because babies in these cultures are treated like an attachment to the mother and aren’t “trained” in any way. (Source)
5. Check Basic Needs
Whenever my babies get fussy, the first thing I do is cycle through the basics. Does he need a diaper change? Does he need to burp? What about nursing? Maybe he’s tired? As a mom, my sixth sense sometimes just knows what my babies need, but this amazing woman, Priscilla Dunstan, figured out how to decipher the meaning of a baby’s cries.
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”
6. Warm Bath
Being naked in a warm bath with you is as close to a womb experience as you can create. Within the first few hours after birth, I always like taking a nice healing herbal bath with my newborns. This is a great time for us to relax and bond after birth, and my little ones always enjoy nursing in the water. When I was having trouble getting Ophelia to latch when she was three days old (I tried a pacifier with her too early, and it created nipple confusion.), we took a bath together it she latched on right away. My babies love it when I hold their heads so they can move their arms and legs freely in the water.
7. Don’t Keep a Baby Awake
When our firstborn, Ruby, was an infant, I had this crazy idea that if I kept her awake more during the day, she would sleep better at night. But then she would get overtired, and getting an overtired baby to go to sleep is not an easy task.
The best rule of thumb to remember with babies and sleep is that the more they sleep, the better they’ll sleep. Trying to get a newborn on any type of schedule or predictable routine is just not going to work. The best thing to do is to just go with the flow and let our little ones sleep whenever they’d like and for as long as they’d like.
8. Red Light at Night
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 during late night nursing sessions. 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!
9. Not Too Hot or Cold
Newborns don’t have a lot of body fat to keep them warm and struggle to maintain their body temperature if the environment is too cold. That is why it’s best to dress babies 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 to put your baby in a footed sleeper with long sleeves. 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! But beware of overdoing it as well. A little bit of sweat is normal, but if your baby is in pools of sweat, he or she is too hot! Babies dressed in too many layers are at a greater risk for SIDS (sudden infant death syndrome).
Swaddling helps to recreate the tight environment of the womb. Some of our babies have totally loved this and others didn’t much care for it. These aden + anais cloths are great for swaddling and so are these summer swaddlers, 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.
Sucking releases oxytocin (the bonding hormone) in both the mother and the baby, which is nature’s way of rewarding them both 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, 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.
12. Get the Boogers Out
Babies can get really fussy if they can’t breathe because boogers are blocking their nasal passages. When they are first born, babies have this white sticky boogers that you’ll need to pull out. I like to take a kleenex and twist a piece of it into a little swirl. Then I spin it into the nostril and spin it out. This usually catches the booger and drags it out.
If there’s any congestion or lots of boogers, I like using saline and a Nose Frida. My babies always HATE this, so I have to hold them snugly, give a quick squirt up each nostril, and gently use the Nose Frida to suck out the boogers. I also keep a kleenex close by to wipe the nose and then I use it to catch the boogers as I blow them out from the Nose Frida.
13. Nose Rub
Every single one of my babies (and even toddlers) love the nose rub. When they are tired, but not wanting to go sleep, I gently run my fingers down the bridge of their nose in a way that also lets my fingers shadow their eyes. Every time my fingers go over their eyes, they close for a bit, then close for a bit longer, and then finally shut. If I stop and they open their eyes, I keep going. Sometimes I’ll also rub their head and cheeks.
I love this video that shows a little baby falling asleep as a light cloth is repeatedly swiped over its face.
A harsh shushing sound mimics the sound of the mother’s blood flow that babies hear 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 effective. 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.
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 him or her to sleep is by re-creating the noises, movement, and snug environment of the womb.
15. Calm Music
Calming music can also provide a very soothing type of white noise. With every baby, I’ve enjoyed listening to something new. Sometimes I’ll get into Enya on Pandora, other times I like Rockabye Baby! Lullaby Renditions with the itunes visualizer turned on, and right now, I’m really liking this lullaby mix on YouTube that has some great visuals which are mesmerizing for me as well as Jack.
16. Mother’s Voice
Starting at 23 weeks gestation, babies can hear sounds in the outside world – including the sounds of voices. During the last 10 weeks of pregnancy, research has proven that babies can actually distinguish the sound of their mother’s voice. At birth, babies recognize and prefer the sound of their mother’s voice.
I love talking to my babies, singing to them, and whispering in their ears telling them how much I love them. Jack is 7 weeks old now and we’re enjoying the best conversations with each other while I hold him close and gaze into his eyes. He is completely transfixed. If someone else is holding him and he hears my voice, he’ll quickly turn his head to see me. If he gets a little fussy, I’ll sing him a little song and all of the troubles in the world melt away.
17. Bounce and Pat
For this maneuver, place the baby in an upright position with its head resting on your shoulder and bounce while gently patting the baby on his or her back or bottom. This position is particularly good if the baby is gassy. While holding the baby, you can bounce on an exercise ball, walk around, dance, or sway back and forth.
I highly recommend investing in at least one good rocking chair. I currently have three set up and Jack loves the rocking motion while I nurse. First of all, I have an old fashioned wicker rocker (that I got at a garage sale) in our bedroom that Scott and I take turns using while holding Jack (primarily during our bedtime routine with the older kids). This type of rocking chair has a great sweeping up and down rock that is very calming for a fussy baby.
In our mini living room, I have a gliding rocker (I call this one my throne because I spend the most time here). The gliding motion is mostly back and forth, not up and down, so it’s not as soothing, but it’s very comfortable. Then in our main living room (where Scott and I hang out after the kids go to bed), we have the most luxurious rocking and reclining arm chair (we just found one at a thrift store, but I linked to one that looks really special). This is the kind of chair that I love to criss cross my legs and snuggle into at the end of the day.
There are times when I’m just too tired to rock and bounce and dance, and a nice swing has been a life saver. I really like this small portable swing the best. I can easily carry it from room to room, it’s not a battery hog, the swinging is silent, and the motion is subtle and gentle. I also really like this Fisher-Price Cradle ‘n Swing. It takes up a bit of room and has a bit more noise, but it offers many different swinging options and the mobile is very distracting as well. And while not technically a swing, I LOVE putting my little babies to sleep in this vibrating bassinet.
20. Tummy to Chest
Little babies love sleeping on their tummies with their heads nestled near your neck and little legs tucked up on your chest. This is a great way to do skin to skin as well. In this position, the baby is near your heart beat and voice, and you can gently pat his or her back to help get out any gas. I think the pressure of being on their tummies feels good if they have a little gas.
If you’re looking for a way to recreate this with a machine, check out this video of a fussy baby being settled with the Babo Cush. You can buy both the rocker and the cushion at the Babo Cush website here.
21. Tummy Rub
I can tell when Jack has to poop or pass gas because he’ll start grunting and squirming. When I put my hand on his stomach for a gentle massage, it really calms him down. I will rub my hands in a downward motion, rub in a circular pattern, or just leave my hand there to gently apply pressure to his tummy.
I can only imagine what it must be like to have to learn how to poop, and even though babies have an uncontrolled stooling reflex, sometimes the muscles of the anus don’t relax at the proper time so your baby will push hard with the diaphragm and belly muscles while holding the anus tightly closed.
When this happens, you can rub their tummy, pump their legs in a bicycle motions, hold them upright on your shoulder, or lay them down to let nature take it’s course.
22. Colic Calm
Colic is technically defined as a baby who cries for more than 3 hours a day and for more than 3 days a week. Although the cause is unknown, it is believed to be due to some sort of intestinal cramping. Dr. Harvey Karp believes colic is a myth and that newborns really need a 4th trimester to develop with conditions similar to those in the womb. In any case, when my babies have been really fussy and I suspect intestinal troubles, I love using Colic Calm. It is a natural 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).
23. Water Dropper
I learned this little trick from my 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 or her a little bit of water, and it calms the baby 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!
24. Hair Tourniquet
In rare occasions, an adult hair can become wrapped around a finger or toe and cut off circulation. (Read more here.) I always like to give my babies a physical once over to see if I can spot something that is causing them pain. Maybe a cookie crumb is lodged in the crook of their neck, maybe a fold of skin has some gunk in it that’s turning into a rash, or perhaps a hair has become wrapped around one of their extremities and is causing pain. It can be quite a guessing game!
25. Tongue or Lip Tie
If a baby is tongue tied or lip tied, it means that there is an extra flap of skin that makes it hard to nurse properly. Julian had a pretty severe tongue tie and as a result he had a hard time latching correctly which made him take in a lot of air. This caused him to be gassy, very fussy, and up in the night every 45 minutes to eat. A lip tie can have the same effect. If you suspect a lip tie or tongue tie, check out my blog here for more information.
For the mother, thrush can mean sore nipples and painful nursing, for a baby thrush can mean white patches of painful sores in the mouth. If your baby has thrush, it means that you probably had a yeast infection during a vaginal birth. Milk spots in the mouth will go away on their own, but white spots from thrush will remain. If you want to learn more about remedies for thrush, check out my blog here. (And if you’re still pregnant and reading this, check out my blog about curing a yeast infection while you’re pregnant so you can avoid thrush.)
You are not a bad parent if your newborn cries. Yes, they cry as a way to communicate and it’s our job to figure out what they’re trying to say, but it’s a big adjustment moving to the outside world from the womb and there are going to be a few tears shed. The best things you can do are to: 1) be proactive by taking measures to prevent fussiness in the first place, 2) be prepared with a variety of tricks up your sleeve to use when your baby does get fussy, 3) stay calm, and 4) be patient. If you keep rotating through a variety of strategies, you will eventually find something that works. Then, when you know what has been troubling your little guy or girl, you can make a plan so that things will get better in the future.
Time goes by fast, so enjoy these precious moments with your newborn and know that by the time they are 3 months old, they will finally be settled into their new world and things will be a lot easier. You’ve got this!