Having a new baby is chaotic and stressful, even more so, if the baby doesn’t stop crying and you don’t know how to make him or her stop. Don’t worry; there are a couple of proven techniques that will sooth almost every crying baby. In this article, I will show you how to soothe crying babies with swaddling and white noise, two of our favorite techniques, based on Dr. Harvey Karp’s “five S’s.”
Of course, neither swaddling will make your baby stop crying if her diaper is full or if she is sick. Instead, our focus is to help babies who are overwhelmed in their new environment, have troubles falling asleep, etc.
How to soothe a crying baby with swaddling
Let’s talk about swaddling first, how it’s done properly and why both you and your baby will love it. As an added benefit your baby will likely cry less and sleep longer. I’ll also talk about potential negative side-effects if it isn’t done correctly.
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What is swaddling?
Swaddling is a relatively old technique of tightly wrapping a baby in blankets or other clothes to restrict movement, especially of the limbs. It’s been used by various cultures and in many ways, some of which, I’m sure, did more harm than good.
As you can image, a baby has little room for movement in the mother’s womb during the last weeks of pregnancy. The idea behind swaddling is to replicate the same tightness and boundaries the baby had while inside the womb. In other words, a baby is used to and feels comfortable and secure having a limited range of motion during, what is widely known as the fourth trimester.
Before we had our first child, I had no clue what swaddling was. I first heard the expression from my wife and learned about the benefits and how it’s properly done from Dr. Harvey Karp’s movie “The Happiest Baby on the Block” (also available as a book).
Later on, we got to experience swaddling at Northside Hospital, the #1 hospital in the US for childbirth, where it seems to be standard practice.
When Lucas, our second baby, was born prematurely at almost 31 weeks and had to stay in the NICU for a couple of weeks, we got to experience a new way of providing boundaries. It’s called Z-Flo, a fluidized neonatal positioner. They are specially designed to comfort, support, and help premature and ill infants continue normal development with containment in an individually-molded nest. After using the Z-Flo for a while, he graduated to normal swaddling.
What do you need to swaddle?
You can swaddle a baby with a standard receiving blanket, like the one you get from the hospital. There are also special swaddle blankets, which look nicer and feel softer. We use the ones from aden + anais made of Cotton Muslin.
We have made the experience that the stiffer the blanket, the less likely it is to unwrap, so keep that in mind.
There are also so-called swaddling pouches or sleep sacks. We have a set of SwaddleMe Pod 2-PK that are super easy to put on. For our little one, we prefer regular swaddle blankets, however, because we can wrap him up more snuggly. He seems to like a snug fit around his arms. If he has too much wiggle room, he has a harder time calming down.
I think the swaddle pouches are an excellent option when traveling or when the baby doesn’t mind having more “wiggle room” around his upper body.
Using a swaddle-pouch, all you have to do is put the baby inside and close the zipper. Using a swaddle blanket may seem to be much more complicated, but it isn’t. After folding the blanket to a triangle, it only takes three steps to swaddle the baby. The photos below are courtesy of Baby Center, and my wife was so kind to pose in a quick video, in which she swaddles our little man.
The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends the following steps to swaddle a baby correctly:
- To swaddle, spread the blanket out flat, with one corner folded down.
- Lay the baby face-up on the blanket, with her head above the folded corner.
- Straighten her left arm, and wrap the left corner of the blanket over her body and tuck it between her right arm and the right side of her body.
- Then tuck the right arm down, and fold the right corner of the blanket over her body and under her left side.
- Fold or twist the bottom of the blanket loosely and tuck it under one side of the baby.
- Make sure her hips can move and that the blanket is not too tight. “You want to be able to get at least two or three fingers between the baby’s chest and the swaddle,” Dr. Moon explains.
Until what age can you swaddle a baby?
It depends on your baby. Our daughter started un-swaddling herself at around 4–5 months. That’s when we stopped swaddling her and soon after she learned how to roll over. At that point, she became a tummy sleeper and swaddling would have hindered her from doing so. The AAP recommends stopping swaddling at the age of 2 months when babies start trying to roll over. Isabella was nowhere near rolling over at that age, so we swaddled her a while longer.
Potential adverse effects of swaddling
Parents should know that there are some risks to swaddling, Dr. Moon says. Swaddling may decrease a baby’s arousal, so that it’s harder for the baby to wake up. “That is why parents like swaddling – the baby sleeps longer and doesn’t wake up as easily,” she said. “But we know that decreased arousal can be a problem and may be one of the main reasons that babies die of SIDS.”
If done correctly, the benefits clearly outweigh the risks, in my opinion. The American Academy of Pediatrics agrees and says:
When done correctly, swaddling can be an effective technique to help calm infants and promote sleep.
How not to swaddle a baby
When swaddling a baby, make sure the swaddle is snug, especially around baby’s upper body, but not too tight. Some babies prefer arms on the side; others are OK having their arms flexed in front of their body. The latter technique we learned at the NICU at Northside Hospital.
Leave enough room around the hips and legs to prevent developmental dysplasia of the hip. To allow for healthy hip development, legs should be able to bend up and out at the hips. This position allows for natural development of the hip joints.
Don’t let the baby overheat by putting on too many layers. As a rule of thumb, dress your baby in the same number of layers you’re wearing, plus one extra layer for warmth. In our case, that’s pajamas and swaddle blanket. Babies can keep themselves warm easier than cooling themselves down.
Make sure the swaddle blanket doesn’t cover parts of the baby’s face, especially mouth and nose. That can easily happen when the baby tries to escape, and the swaddle gets loose. That’s where swaddle pouches shine because they don’t unwrap.
Our experience with swaddling
Friends and family used to envy us for having a baby that practically never cried. We were told that the second baby is going to be different. Well, now we have a second baby and one that was born prematurely. Preemies are supposed to be even fussier than term babies and have a harder time sleeping and feeding. Spoiler alert – he is not a crier either.
Of course, babies cry when they’re hungry, have a full diaper or are in pain or discomfort but:
What I’m not buying into is what is commonly known as the “Period of PURPLE Crying.” It’s supposed to be a period that begins at about two weeks of age and continues until about 3–4 months. During that period a baby may cry for no apparent reason and without anything you can do to stop it.
Excuse my french, but that’s crap. I admit that our two babies don’t make up a cohort big enough to base a scientific study on, but we have made the experience that swaddling, along with the four other methods in Dr. Karp’s book, work. Always!
Two kids – same result
Our daughter, Isabella, was swaddled mostly at night but not during the day. Anytime she was not swaddled, she was more prone to startle and wake herself up, thus increasing the chance of her temporarily crying and shortening the time she would sleep. While swaddled, that did not happen.
Lucas, our preemie, has much more temperament and we couldn’t imagine how his sleep pattern would be without swaddling. He just does not calm down if he isn’t swaddled. He reminds me how I have been during the last few weeks (due to sleep deprivation and stress): grumpy and easily irritated :)
Consequently, he is swaddled almost 24/7. My wife and I joked yesterday that we bought all his cute pajamas for nothing because you can’t see them under the swaddle blanket.
Bottom line, we have seen the clear benefits of swaddling (and other soothing techniques) in the NICU of Northside Hospital, at home with our two kids and more importantly, we have seen and heard reports of crying babies from other parents who did not use those techniques.
So if nothing else, I’d at least encourage you to give it a shot. Try it now and thank me later :)
How to soothe a crying infant with white noise
Remember those days of analog TV and FM radio? If you tuned to an unused frequency, all you got was static. That’s the sound and a very unscientific explanation of white noise.
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Wikipedia offers a more exact definition:
In signal processing, white noise is a random signal with a constant power spectral density. (Wikipedia)
Why white noise?
You may be thinking that making noise is the last thing you want to do when your baby is crying and doesn’t want to sleep. But white noise is more than just noise!
To understand why white noise makes sense, you have to know that while your baby was inside the womb, it was exposed to the constant noise of blood flowing through your body. White noise has a certain resemblance to the continuous and loud noise of blood flowing through arteries near your womb. And because babies are accustomed to that and find it soothing, you can use that to your advantage.
How does it work?
Babies usually cry for specific reasons. The hard part of being a parent is figuring out which one it is. After all, a baby can’t tell you what it needs, and it takes a while for new parents to learn how to interpret the baby’s cues.
Common reasons why babies cry
- In need of a diaper change
But what if you have ruled out all the reasons above and your baby is still crying and refuses to sleep? In the first few weeks and months of life, babies don’t have the nervous system to soothe themselves and to handle the new environment they have been put into (through birth). So they need our help to make them feel comfortable and secure.
The easiest way to do that is to replicate the environment they are used to from inside the womb.
What makes babies feel secure?
- Swaddling: Tight swaddling provides the continuous support your baby is used to from when she was in the womb.
- Side/stomach position: The infant is placed on their left side to assist in digestion, or on their stomach to provide reassuring support. “But never use the stomach position for putting your baby to sleep,” cautions Karp. Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS) is linked to stomach-down sleep positions. When a baby is in a stomach down position, do not leave them even for a moment.
- Shushing sounds: These imitate the continual whooshing sound made by the blood flowing through arteries near the womb.
- Swinging: Newborns are used to the swinging motions within their mother’s womb, and entering a gravity driven world, is like a sailor adapting to land after nine months at sea. “It’s disorienting and unnatural,” says Karp. Rocking, car rides, and other swinging movements all can help.
- Sucking: “Sucking has its effects deep within the nervous system,” notes Karp, “and triggers the calming reflex and releases natural chemicals within the brain.”
If the above points sound familiar to you, then it’s because I have mentioned them a couple of times already in other posts. They are straight out of Harvey Karp’s playbook, and I highly recommend watching this video or reading his book.
How to produce white noise
If you don’t have anything else, just turn on the vacuum cleaner and put it in the room with your baby, next to the crib. There are also apps for various mobile platforms. We use an app called White Noise Free, but out of convenience, we also bought a dedicated white noise machine on Amazon.
If you use your mobile device, just don’t forget to switch to airplane mode. I haven’t heard about any peer-reviewed studies suggesting that radiation from your mobile device can harm a baby but it doesn’t hurt to err on the side of caution. More importantly, you don’t want the sleeping baby to wake up because of an incoming call or other notification.
How long can you use white noise?
We used white noise with Isabella for about two years, until her little brother was born. First, we used it as a tool to soothe her and later we used it to mask noise originating from outside her room. That has been especially helpful for nap time. We could be noisy throughout the house while she was sleeping undisturbed in her room. Ultimately, it’s up to you to decide when you won’t need it anymore.
Using white noise is pretty straightforward. Just put the source of white noise (mobile phone, dedicated machine…) next to the baby’s sleep area and turn it on. If the baby is quietly sleeping, it doesn’t have to be very loud, but if the baby is crying, turn up the volume so that the baby can hear it. We use a white noise machine at home but turn to our mobile phones when we’re on the go, and the baby is in a stroller or car seat.
The combination of swaddling and white noise greatly helped us with our kids, and I’d love to hear what experience you have made with those techniques. Let me know by leaving a comment below!
Michael is a healthy living enthusiast and CrossFit athlete whose goal is to help people achieve optimal health by bridging the gap between ancestral living and the demands of modern society.