How to soothe a baby who won't stop crying
A study by the University of Oxford and Liverpool John Moores University has found that gently stroking a crying baby can provide substantial pain relief
The study, which will now be undertaken on premature babies as well, monitored the brain activity of 32 babies while they had blood taken. Half of the babies were gently stroked with a soft brush beforehand, resulting in 40% less pain activity in their brain during the procedure.
Researchers even found that there's an optimal stroking speed (3cm per second) – and that parents intuitively stroke their babies at that speed (good news).
The study's author, Professor Rebecca Slater, told the BBC: “Parents intuitively stroke their babies at this optimal velocity. If we can better understand the neurobiological underpinnings of techniques like infant massage, we can improve the advice we give to parents on how to comfort their babies.”
Professor Slater also said the study could explain anecdotal evidence of successful touch-based practices, like baby massage and kangaroo care, where premature babies are given skin-to-skin contact in order to promote bonding and possibly reduce pain.
“Previous work has shown that touch may increase parental bonding, decrease stress for both the parents and the baby, and reduce the length of hospital stay,” said Prof Slater.
While this stroking technique has previously been found to be effective on adults, it had – until now – been unclear whether it had the same effect on babies or whether it a sensory response that developed as they grew.
All babies cry, but some cry more than others and a few do it so much you're driven to tears yourself. To stop you getting to that point, we've pulled together information and tips from Mumsnetters on how to comfort a crying baby.
Why do babies cry?
Experts – and parents whose babies barely whimper – will tell you that your baby is crying because it's the only way he has of telling you that something is up. Once you work out what's wrong and manage to resolve it, the crying will stop. But sometimes it isn't easy to work out what that 'something' might be. Is it tiredness? Could your baby be too hot? Or maybe he has wind, or even colic? Trying to figure out the reason can be confusing and frustrating.
What you need (apart from a big hug) is some tried-and-trusted advice from parents who've been there and borne the hollering brunt before you – parents who can tell your run-of-the-mill crying jag from your full-on bout of colic, and pull some ace comforting tricks from up their parenting sleeves. And, since that's what Mumsnet does best, here you are…
Why is my baby crying?
Your baby is crying because that's what babies do, wise Mumsnetters counsel. The crying won't last forever. In most cases, crying peaks at around six weeks before easing off gradually. So things will get better. As one Mumsnetter says: “A crying baby can make you feel so miserable and alone. I remember feeling like this wasn't what I signed up for but it did get better.”
In the meantime, take a deep breath, read our short guide to the most common reasons why babies cry, and hopefully, you'll be closer to finding a solution.
This is the main reason that newborns (babies of up to 28 days old) cry. If your baby cries then offer him a feed. Babies should be fed on demand anyway for the first few weeks of life, but if yours is a little older and could be crying because he is hungry, it’s worth a try – he may be having a growth spurt or wanting to feed more due to hot weather.
Needs a cuddle
Babies have a real need for close physical contact. They need to be held, cuddled and reassured. So pick up your baby, hold him close and whisper soothing words. Perhaps sing him a lullaby. You could also try babywearing, as babies often feel reassured by the sound of their mum’s heartbeat because it reminds them of hearing it when they were in the womb.
With my son I go through the checklist of hungry, nappy, tired etc. It's usually tiredness because he fights napping during the day. I'm in a constant battle with him – I'm really struggling!
Babies give off sleep signals (also known as “sleep clues”). Some of these are subtle (staring into space, going quiet) while others are impossible to ignore (crying). If your baby is crying, try putting him down in his cot. Stay close, encouraging him to nod off and see if he goes to sleep.
Babies like to be clean, and who can blame them? Having a dirty nappy on doesn't sound comfortable at all. Try singing a song or just talking to him in a reassuring way while you change his nappy – this will help him to relax.
Babies can swallow too much air when they feed or while they're crying. This can cause them quite a lot of discomfort and could be why they’re crying (even more). Mumsnetters say the best way to burp a baby is to rub or pat his back. You can do this by holding him up straight, so he's facing over your shoulder, lying him face down on your lap, or sitting him up with his back against you. But you’ll find your own winning positions eventually. Sometimes just sitting a baby up straight and supporting his cheeks and chin with your fingers, seems to encourage wind to come back up the way it went down. For babies who find it harder to burp, Mumsnetters say rubbing their back in an upwards direction can help.
Too hot/Too cold
Your baby should usually wear one more layer than you. If you think he might be too hot or too cold then feel his tummy. If he’s too hot then remove a layer. If you think he’s too cold then add one. In the cot, apply the same rule to blankets. Whatever you do, learn from the sleep-deprived Mumsnetter who admitted to getting outside only to realise her baby did not have one more layer on than she did, and therefore removed her own coat ‘to even it up’. We can hear the facepalm from here.
Many a Mumsnetter has found that the cause of her baby’s crying isn’t boredom or upset but simply being overstimulated. Remember that your baby has been used to the relative peace and quiet of the womb, so something as simple as too much noise and activity could be enough to make him feel overwhelmed. A busy day with lots of trips out and doting visitors can also cause tears before bedtime. You may find overstimulation affects his ability to go to sleep straight away – this could then lead to more crying as he becomes frustrated at being tired but not able to sleep.
How do I stop my baby crying?
If you've worked your way through that list and still got a hollerer on your hands, consider whether your baby could be unwell. Does he have a temperature? Have you noticed a difference in his crying? Does the cry seem more urgent or higher-pitched than usual?
If you're at all worried, give your GP or health visitor a ring. Always seek medical help if your baby has difficulty breathing as he cries, or if the crying is accompanied by vomiting, diarrhoea or constipation.
If you’re sure your baby isn’t unwell then you can relax and stop trying to diagnose the problem, as some babies do just seem to get patches of fretfulness for no obvious reason. As one Mumsnetter explains: “Keep trying different things and eventually you'll find what works for your baby. For us it was walking round gently bouncing and singing softly, or alternatively popping her in a sling and going for a walk round the block.” Crank up the comfort factor by experimenting with these steps:
Calming sounds. This is all about rhythm and is connected to the earlier point about your baby being comforted by the sound of your heartbeat. But other repetitive sounds can be surprisingly useful: the vacuum cleaner or rumble of the washing machine can help lull your baby to sleep, too. If you fancy something more specialised then try downloading a white noise app or buying CDs which are designed specifically for this purpose. You could also leave a radio on all night tuned off station – some Mumsnetters swear that the louder the crackle, the better their baby will sleep.
Warm bath. If your baby generally responds well to bathing then you might find that a warm bath calms him and stops him crying. Make sure the bath isn’t too hot or too cold – neither of those will feel very relaxing.
Babies rarely let themselves sleep. The world is so new and interesting. I stick my daughter in the sling and go for a walk, covering her head/eyes so she cannot see. She'll sleep in ten minutes. The other trick is to do some vacuuming with her in the sling.
Sucking. Some babies feel better when they have something to suck on. Offer them a clean finger, your knuckle or your nipple if you’re breastfeeding. It’s up to you to decide whether or not to give your baby a dummy_ – the debate is fraught – but many a Mumsnetter swears by a dummy for a baby that’s a crier – particularly for the early evening ‘witching hour’ time when lots of babies seem to lose it.
Rhythmical movement. First, try rocking your baby, either sitting down or perhaps while having a walk around the house. You could try a baby swing or bouncer but, if you haven’t got one, then here are some tips from Mumsnetters about other techniques that you can try at home:
- “Put your baby in his pram and rock it up and down the hall.”
- “I found that patting my baby at a heartbeat-rhythm pace seemed to work.”
- “A swing worked for my son. We started using it when he was six weeks. It stopped him crying and then sent him to sleep.”
Or it might do you both good to get out:I had a horrendously cry-ey baby. Getting out of the house helped, even just into town for a walk around. He was fine in the sling, or in the pushchair for short periods and I felt a bit more 'normal' walking around looking in shops.
- “I take him out for a drive in the car to settle him – even at 1am!”
- “My husband used to walk the streets in the evenings with my son in a sling. The walking motion soothed them both – and gave me a break!”
- “I just used to stick my daughter in the pram and take her for a walk, and she'd calm down in just a few minutes and then conk out.”
For babies who've had quite enough bustling about, there's always the Zen option:
- “I think the 'white-out' method is very successful for soothing a crying baby. Basically, I hang a white muslin over the hood of the pram/pushchair so that is all the baby can see. Holding baby over your shoulder and standing with your back to a white wall has the same effect. It's especially useful when they seem overstimulated and fretful.”
It's hard to underestimate the nerve-shredding power of a screaming baby, particularly if you're severely sleep-deprived. But even if your baby's crying makes you feel incompetent (or like joining in and having a good sob yourself), remember you're more attuned to your baby than anyone else and you'll soon be able to tell every gradation in your baby's crying, from hungry howl to fed-up grizzling.
What Mumsnetters say about comforting crying babies
“It's normal for babies to cry – they only kick around peacefully in books. And it's normal to feel distressed about it. That's because you are his mother. Your job is to rush around after your baby for the next 21 years.”
“The usual back-patting didn't do it for my middle one. He'd go all red and angry. We had to jiggle him about quite a bit before he'd finally burp and calm down.”
“My daughter did a lot of grizzling/cluster feeding in the evenings when she was about seven weeks old and then she put on a ton of weight and stopped. If you're breastfeeding, you could just let your baby go from boob to boob until he passes out.”
“My daughter was incredibly miserable and unsettled for the first few months of her life and used to scream for hours. I was exhausted and depressed. I tried every remedy on the market but, in the end, time was the only real solution. It does pass – I promise. Your little one will get better. Just take each day at a time, use Mumsnet for support, and try to look after yourself as best you can.”