Soothing Secrets

by Julie Tilsner

Soothing Secrets

Of all the things you were worried about before your baby’s arrival, comforting her probably wasn’t one of them. Of course you’d know how to calm her tears  — and what would she have to be fussy about anyway? Reality check: The average infant cries anywhere from two to three hours a day, and any pediatrician will tell you that a huge percentage of phone calls come from parents desperate to calm their cranky charges. Sure, you can go through the proverbial checklist of possible problems: Is the baby wet? Hungry? Tired? But for the times when you’ve exhausted those possibilities and your baby is still crying, turn to these inventive ideas discovered by weary moms like you. These twists work on the same principles as soothing techniques in standard baby books, but may be easier for you to manage. Here’s to some peace and quiet at last:

Steady motion

The standard advice: Gently bounce or rock your baby from side to side.

Why it works: The experts call it “vestibular motion,” but most moms don’t need big words to understand that moving a baby up and down and around as you hold her almost always helps, at least for a bit. The rhythmic swaying is calming because it resembles the movement that infants got used to in the womb, says Paula Elbirt, M.D., author of Dr. Paula’s House Calls to Newborns: Birth Through Six Months. But any mom who’s ever done some midnight pacing with a wailing baby knows how exhausting that can be.

How moms add their own twist: Dana McMahan of Richmond, California, has her husband, Josh, to thank for a way to keep their twins in motion that doesn’t involve walking: “We used to do that awkward bounce-and-hold as we walked around the room with our girls,” she says. “But Josh figured that if he was going to bounce, he might as well sit down. So he sat on a fitness ball and held the girls in the crook of each arm, with their heads against his chest. It worked so well that we’ve used it ever since!”
Emily Strong of Little River, California, discovered that using her stair-climbing machine calmed her 14-month-old, Eliza, who was miserable with an ear infection. As she waited for Eliza’s meds to kick in, Strong held her and stepped up and down on the machine. “Thankfully, it worked when nothing else would distract her,” she says.

Julie Tilsner is the author of Planet Parenthood and Attack of the Toddlers.


The standard advice: Turn on a fan in the nursery.

Why it works: A baby’s developing neurological system isn’t able to tune out surrounding stimuli yet. White noise helps shut out everything else.

How moms add their own twist: Jill Whalen of Ashland, Massachusetts, stumbled into her kitchen late one night with her crying baby. She turned on the tap to get a drink of water  — and Timmy, 1 month old, stopped crying. She turned it off, and he started up again. On, off, on, off. And so it went, until his crying tapered off. Radio static worked equally well, and Timmy spent the first three months of his life listening calmly to nothing on the radio. “I just discovered this by mistake!” Whalen says. “I wish somebody had told me about it earlier.”

Other moms find that, contrary to common wisdom, noises that are considered triggers for crying can be just the opposite. Jen Grogono figured out that her baby not only didn’t pitch a fit in a restaurant, but the background din actually put him to sleep. The Austin, Texas, mom dined out a lot in those early days.

Unfortunately for Joyce Grzybek of Ramsey, New Jersey, her infant son, Kevin, quieted down only to the sound of the vacuum cleaner. But at least her carpets were spotless. Tape recordings of running water or the vacuum may work just as well (but your house won’t be as clean).

Let’s ride

The standard advice: Drive your baby around the block.

Why it works: You’re actually combining steady motion and white noise, so it makes sense that a car ride can do the trick. But it’s hardly convenient at 2:30 a.m.

How moms add their own twist: Baby-equipment manufacturers do a brisk business selling vibrating bouncy seats, but many moms make their own versions of the white-noise-movement combo. Cheri Schulzke, a Pleasant Grove, Utah, mom of four, turned to her clothes dryer whenever her babies wouldn’t stop fussing. “I put the bouncy seat on top of a towel on the dryer, turned it on, and watched it work its magic. They loved the movement, the hum, and the warmth,” she says. (Stay close by if you try this with your baby; the seat may bounce around.)

Sometimes even the notion of motion works. Deborah Phillips spent a lot of time driving her daughter, Megan, 6 weeks old, around the block of their Snohomish, Washington, home to calm her down enough to sleep. But late one desperate night, she simply brought the car seat inside and set it on the living room floor. “She nestled right in and fell sound asleep,” Phillips says. “I could’ve saved a lot of gas if I’d thought of this earlier!”

Tune in

The standard advice: Play or sing soft lullaby music.

Why it works: Gentle, rhythmic melodies are time-tested calmers, that’s for sure. If you sing a particular song at night as your baby drifts off to sleep, she may start to connect it to nodding off, so try that song first if she’s fussing.

How moms add their own twist: Elisa Mikiten of Berkeley, California, says she knows several moms who rely on Bob Marley to soothe their babes. “I’ve also found that Paul Simon’s Graceland works,” she adds.

If a CD isn’t handy, don’t let a limited vocal range keep you from singing: Even if you’re tone-deaf, the soft, crooning nature of your voice can calm your baby.

When Kim Frank of Albany, California, was pregnant, she spent a lot of time listening to a popular drumming circle that jammed every day in a local park  — maybe that’s why her son, Lev, 9 months, instantly quiets whenever his dad starts to play his West African drum.

The right touch

The standard advice: Give your baby a gentle massage.

Why it works: Touch stimulates pressure receptors in the brain that calm your baby. Research shows that long, smooth strokes work better than short, brisk ones.

How moms add their own twist: “One trick that worked with my two girls was to stroke their cheek with the tips of my index and middle finger,” says Rajean Blomquist of Huber Heights, Ohio. “My older daughter, who’s now 10, still asks me to do this whenever she’s feeling stressed.”

My own daughter, Anna, loves a back scratch  — never a massage. It calmed her down in her earliest months, and five years later it still succeeds at putting her to sleep fast.

Many moms swear by the water method: giving their baby a bath. Use either an infant tub or the sink, and support her body the whole time. The sound of the running water and the warm touch on her skin will do the rest.

Tone it down

If you’ve tried everything and your child is still worked up, maybe you’re trying too hard. Some young babies don’t like to be handled as much and need to be left alone before being able to fall asleep. “Sometimes they just need to cry a bit before they conk out,” says Ann Froese-Fretz, R.N., director of the Fussy Baby Clinic of the Children’s Hospital, in Denver. “We don’t recommend letting an infant under three months cry it out, but it’s okay to let her fuss for five minutes. You need to give her the opportunity to figure out how to soothe herself.”

At times, visual overstimulation may be the problem. Froese-Fretz once treated a child whose parents had set up a beautiful nursery, decorated with tartan plaids. “But their baby went nuts  — it was too much,” she says. Once the parents removed the mobiles, covered the crib bumpers, and replaced the sheets with plain ones, “the change was miraculous  — like they had a different baby.”

Most important, when you stumble upon a strategy that works, stay with it. Trying something different every five minutes can backfire if it overstimulates her. Limit yourself to two or three methods that seem to work best at soothing your little one  — if one fails in one instance, try the other, instead of introducing several new techniques. “You almost always get results after a day or two if you stick to a consistent pattern,” says Froese-Fretz.

Of course, no method is absolutely foolproof. Keep in mind that temperament is a big factor, and some babies simply weren’t born to be soothed  — you can rock them all day long and they’ll still only calm down a bit. If that is the case in your house, don’t forget to tend to your own psyche. And remember that this too shall pass.