You are here

Sweet Comfort

When my daughter, Rachel, arrived, I felt prepared. Though she was my first, I had spent my teenage years babysitting and my pregnancy poring over books and diligently attending babycare classes. And in those first few hours after delivery, as I positioned her tummy against mine to ensure that she latched on properly and confidently grasped both ankles to change her tiny diapers, I knew that that preparation was serving me well.

But the cozy image I had of our first night together quickly faded. Though Rachel had been nursed, burped, and diapered, she began to whimper. She needed something more -- but what? As her cries grew steadily louder, my husband, bleary-eyed, looked to me. In desperation, I drew her close, began swaying in the hospital bed, and started humming "Rock of Ages."

To our relief, it worked! Her fretfulness subsided, and she curled up and fell fast asleep in my arms. But what had calmed her? I wondered. Was it the sound of my voice? The cuddling and rocking? Or all of the above?

In fact, I was intuitively doing some of the very things that researchers say comfort infants. "There's an incredible instinctual mechanism that's revved up when a baby and parent are together," says William Lord Coleman, M.D., a professor of pediatrics at the University of North Carolina School of Medicine at Chapel Hill.

Tender Touches

Holding, caressing, and cuddling your infant are crucial to helping her feel safe and secure because touch is a baby's most highly developed sense at birth: Stroking an infant's skin sends messages to the brain to increase levels of beneficial hormones and chemicals, such as those that help the body absorb food, better tolerate pain, and regulate stress levels.

Research has shown that touch may be as important to a baby's physical, emotional, and cognitive development as eating and sleeping are. In a Harvard Medical School study of an overcrowded orphanage in Romania, researchers found that babies who lay for hours without physical human contact suffered stunted growth and had abnormal levels of cortisol, a stress hormone. Other research has shown that babies who are touched and held frequently fuss less, sleep better, and even have stronger immune systems.

Any extra caressing and holding can soothe your infant. Some things to try: Massage her scalp as you shampoo her hair, and after her bath apply baby lotion with long, firm, gentle strokes. When you remove her socks and shoes, rub her toes and the soles of her feet (but not so lightly that it tickles). If you're bottle-feeding, let your baby's cheek rest against your bare arm while she eats. Between meals, lift her shirt and rub her back while she plays on her tummy, taking care not to apply pressure on her spine or joints.

Where It All Started

One reason babies crave touch may be that they grew accustomed to the constant sensations of the fluid-filled womb. Swaddling -- being wrapped snugly in a blanket -- may replace that stimulation, and it prevents arms and legs from flailing, which can be startling to newborns.

This memory of floating in fluid may also be why some babies are pacified by a warm bath. Soaking in the tub with your infant allows him to be soothed by the feel of the water and your skin. (Just be sure the umbilical area is healed first, which usually takes a few weeks.) Place your baby against your chest; if you're breastfeeding, let him nurse, keeping the lower half of his body immersed.

Another calming activity that's been shown to start in the womb is sucking (ultrasound exams show fetuses sucking their fingers or fists). Because babies usually get satisfaction from oral stimulation, sucking calms them down and can relieve discomfort. Some parents may be wary of encouraging a pacifier or thumb, but researchers stress that sucking gives infants a way to soothe themselves when Mom and Dad aren't immediately available. (If your baby is prone to recurrent ear infections, though, scaling back pacifier time may help.)

While many of these techniques soothe babies well into toddlerhood, what helps a child changes as he grows. Once an infant can sit up, for instance, he'll still need and enjoy cuddling but may resist being nuzzled under your neck if this restricts his view. And after the first few weeks, babies may find swaddling confining rather than comforting (some do even before then). That doesn't mean you should put away his blanket just yet, though. Many babies love nestling with something soft -- Mom's nightgown, a cuddly blanket, a plush toy -- while you supervise, though they don't begin to grow attached to an object like this and actively seek it out for comfort until around 8 months. (A word of caution: To minimize the risk of sudden infant death syndrome, never place these items in a baby's crib.)

Smooth Moves & Soothing Sounds

Smooth moves

How many times have you rocked your baby to sleep, only to have her wake up as soon as you put her down? The same thing probably happened when you were pregnant: Your baby didn't stir much as you bustled about during the day, but woke up kicking as your head hit the pillow.

Experts say that's because babies in utero get used to moms being in motion. Researchers think repetitive movements are comforting because of an infant's need for predictability. Being able to rely on what comes next -- that a swing will rock forward after it rocks backward, for instance -- helps a baby feel more secure and safe.

That may be why babies who are "worn" in a carrier tend to cry less than infants who aren't carried as much. Other calming motions to try: Put your baby in an infant swing, walk with her in a stroller, dance chest to cheek.

Soothing sounds

Babies also like rhythmic sounds that remind them of the womb, such as a ticking clock or a whirring fan. "The uterus is a noisy environment -- blood coursing through a mom's veins, her heart beating, her stomach gurgling," says David Moore, Ph.D., director of the Claremont Infant Study Center at Pitzer College, in California. "It makes sense that sounds that mimic the womb are soothing."

Some other sounds that are easy on a baby's ears are slow, lilting music and lullabies. Don't worry if you're not Grammy material: Experts say babies don't care -- they're lulled by the soft quality of a crooning human voice. But while infants like it when anyone sings to them, researchers say they tend to focus more on their mom's voice, possibly because that's the one they heard in utero, or because they know she's their food source.

This preference for the female voice may be one reason babies are so responsive to the high-pitched tone that many adults instinctively use when talking to them. But not all high-pitched animated speech quiets babies: Fast-paced chatter excites or stimulates. On the other hand, slow speech that starts at a high pitch, then drops -- "Ohhh, that's okay, baby," for instance -- has a calming effect.

Budding Tastes & Scent and Sight

Budding tastes

Even newborns have a sweet tooth. Research suggests that infants may reject some bitter and sour flavors but will suck longer and have a relaxed facial expression when they're given sweets. In many areas -- such as Mexico, Egypt, Jamaica, and India -- newborns may be given sweet liquids (other than breast milk, which also tastes sweet) after birth to calm them. If your baby must undergo a painful procedure, such as a circumcision, ask your doctor if, along with any local anesthesia, he can give your baby a pacifier dipped in a sugar solution to help his discomfort.

Experts believe that infants' preference for sugar is a primitive survival mechanism. (Sweet tastes may signal a good source of calories.) Other research suggests that sweets stimulate the production of endorphins, chemicals that activate the brain's pleasure-response system.

Scent and sight

An hours-old newborn can locate his mother's nipple by smell and can distinguish her scent from that of other mothers within his first week of life. And babies as young as 2 weeks learn other maternal odors, such as her shampoo, says Gary Beauchamp, Ph.D., director of the Monell Chemical Senses Center, in Philadelphia. "Over time, these scents become comforting because they are familiar," says Beauchamp. That may be why older babies often prefer that their security objects remain unwashed.

Similarly, even though babies are able to distinguish their mother's face from others at 1 month of age, they aren't soothed just by seeing their mom until they're 5 or 6 months old, when they begin to understand that her appearance means their needs will soon be met.


A reliable, predictable pattern of care may do more to comfort a baby than any single soothing technique, say experts. If you feed your infant when she's hungry and respond promptly to her needs, that frantic newborn crying will soon be replaced by the less desperate whimper of a 6- or 7-month-old who has learned that there's no need to wail because help isn't far away.

Your baby will also find solace in a few simple routines, such as bathing at the same time each day or hearing the same lullaby each night. Because the first year of life is full of so many new experiences, being able to count on certain occurrences day in and day out is especially consoling.

But as important as it is to try to comfort your baby, don't worry if nothing seems to work. According to experts, babies sometimes just need to cry out whatever they're feeling -- say, pain from a shot -- and no soothing technique can quiet them.

When my second child, Alise, was born, I was much more relaxed about handling her upsets. I also realized then how early this instinct for calming an infant can start: A few weeks after we brought Alise home from the hospital, I found Rachel, then 3, gently rocking her baby sister's cradle, crooning "Rock of Ages." Alise was sound asleep  -- the picture of a comforted, contented baby.

5 Things Baby's Don't Like

1. Sudden Changes In Volume Because babies prefer gradual change, they're unsettled by a balloon popping, a door slamming, or loud voices.

2. Irregular Movements or Sounds Even motions and noises - swinging back and forth, the sound of a clock ticking - are important to infants, who find erratic patterns upsetting.

3. Abrupt Changes In Environment Babies don't like sudden transitions. If your child is playing on the floor and you come up from behind to pick her up and whisk her off to her bath, she'll probably become agitated.

4. Bitter and Very Sour Tastes Studies have shown that newborns scrunch up their faces and reject these tastes.

5. Overstimulation You're not the only one who can be overwhelmed by the phone ringing, your 2-year-old whining, supper boiling over, and someone knocking at the door. Babies pick up on all this stress, so it may be wise to keep that in mind, especially during the evening rush.

Kelly King Alexander, a mother of three, is a writer based in Prairieville, Louisiana.