Nervous System and Soothing Techniques
There are many great ways to soothe a baby. However, sometimes one method works, while another does not, and this can depend on what time of day it is, what has upset your baby, who is doing the soothing, and even just your baby’s personal preference. Therefore, it will be beneficial to you to be versed in multiple styles. The most common types of soothing are known as “the five Ss of soothing.” These are: swaddle, sound, suction, swatting, and side or stomach positioning.
First, swaddling. There are two ways to swaddle: arms up and arms down. When swaddling with arms up, choose your swaddle blanket—whether it is a normal baby blanket or an actual blanket designed for swaddling—spread it out, and lay your baby in the center. Then tuck baby’s arms up close to the chin, with the arms either slightly over the chest or by the side (with hands still tucked up to chin), and bring one side of the blanket over and across your baby’s arms, tucking tightly underneath the body. Then bring the other side of the blanket over and across your baby, bringing it all the way around the back, and tuck down into the top of the blanket to secure. Make sure that you wrap at shoulder height so that your baby’s mouth can reach the fists. When you are finished swaddling, the tightest part of the swaddle should be around the middle, and the loosest part should be around the feet. This allows your baby to practice motor skills by moving and kicking feet without restriction and without breaking free of the swaddle. This technique is used for very young babies as it allows them to show hunger cues in the early stages, versus the last stage, which is crying.
When swaddling arms down, choose your blanket and lay it down on a flat surface so that it is angled in the shape of a diamond. Then take one of the corners and fold it down about eight inches toward the center. Next lay your baby onto the blanket, so that shoulders line up with the flat edge you have just created. Put your baby’s left arm straight down next to baby’s side. Bring that side of the blanket over and across your baby’s abdomen and arm, and tuck it in tightly under the back. Next, place your baby’s right arm down by the side. Bring the remaining corner of the blanket over and across your baby’s abdomen and arm, and then wrap around the back and tuck into the top of the blanket to secure.
Remember that, while swaddling is a great tool to use to soothe your baby, it should not be used during the daytime. This is because swaddling suppresses your baby’s cues and movements. Instead, only use it to help suppress involuntary movements during the night so that your baby can rest without being woken by natural reflexes and involuntary movements. See below for the step-by-step process for swaddling.
Sound means multiple things. It can mean holding your baby to your chest and humming lightly, and it can also mean making soft “sh” noises. Depending on your home (if it’s a louder environment with other kids), it can mean placing a sound machine in your baby’s room at night. This sound helps drown out other voices and noises in your home that may make it more difficult for your baby to fall and stay asleep. It can also help to serve as a constant for your baby throughout all the sleep cycles. If you opt for this, the sound must remain constant, so don’t set a timer so that the sound machine turns off after a certain number of minutes, otherwise this will disrupt your baby’s sleep cycles. The sound must remain constant all night long and be a genuine white noise. Additionally, the sound machine can’t have a nightlight, as any light (except red) will disrupt the baby’s circadian rhythm.
Suction, on the other hand, usually means to give your baby a pacifier. This can be an extremely effective soothing tool, although you must gently take the pacifier away once baby is soothed. If you don’t, your baby will continue to suck on the pacifier, because babies have sucking reflexes that are triggered when something is in their mouths, and this will in turn suppress hunger cues. This can encourage a longer than ideal stretch between feeds, which is problematic and potentially dangerous for proper weight gain. In addition your baby could become extremely attached to the pacifier, making it difficult to wean from it later. Use it as a tool and, like any one of these tools, use it only as needed.
Then there is swatting. This is basically patting your baby lightly on the bum, belly, or back, sometimes accompanied by a sort of rocking motion. This works well if your baby wakes and needs to be soothed, as it calms without lifting your baby in your arms.
Last, there are side- or stomach-laying positions. Laying your baby down on side or stomach relieves the moro reflux. This is also a comfortable position for your baby. Note however, that after soothing, you must turn your baby onto the back. You can’t leave babies on their sides because they may roll over onto their stomachs, and if they aren’t capable of barrel rolling when they do this, you have to roll them back yourself.
You can also use side soothing in your arms or stomach soothing on your chest as you lay back. For a reflux baby, this can be helpful with the pain, and for all babies, mama’s or papa’s chest is a great place to rest.
Besides the five Ss, there are a few other ways to soothe and calm your baby. You can place a hand on your baby’s stomach and adding slight pressure. Then slowly pull your hand away, hovering about half an inch away from your baby’s stomach before pulling away completely. Don’t make any sudden movements, as this can startle your baby, and then you will then have to resoothe.
You can also try resetting your baby’s nervous system (see the nervous system section for instructions on how to do this). Lastly, be aware of the proper way to lay your baby down, so as not to trigger the moro reflex. This is an infantile reflex normally present in newborns for up to three to five months after birth. “It is a response to a sudden loss of support or loud sound, which then makes the infant become extremely startled and/or feel as if they are falling” (psychology.about.com). This will wake the baby and cause the need for further soothing.
Keep your baby close to you and move your body with your baby’s. Lay baby down, hover for a moment, and then pull away. Do not simply use your arms to lay your baby down, or baby will feel as though falling and jerk awake. Use your entire body to lay down your baby, and pull yourself away slowly.
You will often use a combination of these techniques and creates ones of your own. Each relationship created with a baby is different, and what works for Mom may not work for a partner, grandparents, caregiver, and so forth. When working through sleep transitions, you will use the soothing techniques you know work best first and slowly wean to the least invasive one—ideally, just a calming touch.
Babies’ nervous systems take up to three years to develop enough for them to be able to reset them on their own (Siegel and Bryson). Therefore, babies will need help to reset their systems for the first three years of their lives. Resetting your baby’s nervous system will be one of the most important parts of your job as a parent. This is because it is the system babies have the least control of, and the system that parents have the most control helping with.
You can really change your baby’s mood and demeanor by resetting the nervous system, which will, in turn, make both your and your baby’s lives easier. Bring your baby to your chest, put a hand flat on the head, and engage in deep breathing. It is important that you do not make any noise and don’t move; just remain calm and focus on the stillness and breathing of both you and your baby. This should reset your baby’s nervous system. Do this, at the very least, once a day.
Your baby’s nervous system needs to be reset multiple times through the day. This is because cortisol levels build up, and your baby will become overstimulated. Note however, that the system will eventually reset by accident or without you being aware that resetting has occurred. This usually happens when you are both crying at the same time while you hold your baby to your chest. Or it could happen while you are breastfeeding your baby. However, the more aware of it you are and the more often you do it, the more in control of the situation you will be, and the happier and more agreeable your baby will be.
Additionally, one of the reasons that the cried-out method doesn’t work and is, in fact, harmful for your baby is that—according to research—mothers and their babies are in sync with each other, and so your (i.e., Mom’s) presence is often calming. When you are gone and your baby is left to cry, both you and your baby’s cortisol levels (i.e., the hormone in the body that signals stress) increase. The difference between you and your baby, however, is that, while your nervous system will reset on its own, and your cortisol levels will decrease and regulate, your baby’s won’t (Middlemiss et al. 2011). Even though babies may stop crying, (because they’ve cried themselves out), their cortisol levels will remain high.
This is a problem because it results in mothers’ and babies’ systems to be out of sync with each other, and then mothers are not able to reset their babies’ nervous systems as easily. Also note that the “cried-out” method burns so many calories for the baby that it causes harm through loss of energy as well, and, again, creates negative associations.
Note that, by 2 years of age your baby is having a lot of feelings and emotions, they just are unable to differentiate between the vast majority of them, such as angry, sad or mad, which all feel as if they are one emotion for them, at this time.