Dr. Bill & Martha Sears: 12 Ways to Soothe a Fussy Baby

Over our 40 years of counseling parents of fussy babies and soothing a few of our own, here are our top 12 fussbusters:

1. Wear baby in a carrier several hours a day. A sling-type carrier is the most valuable baby-comforting tool used the world over. Infant-development researchers report that infants who are carried more cry less. Many times in our pediatric practice veteran baby-calmers tell us: “As long as I wear my baby, she’s content.” When you wear your baby many hours a day mothers often report, “My baby forgets to fuss.” Motion mellows an upset baby, probably reminding baby of the rhythm she enjoyed while in the womb. Years ago when we traveled to international parenting conferences we noticed how calm babies were when their mothers wore them, which led us to coin the term “babywearing.” If your baby is in daycare, be sure to instruct your substitute caregiver how to wear your baby. (For various ways to wear your baby, see AskDrSears.com/babywearing.)

2. Respond sensitively to baby’s cries. While you may hear well-meaning, but poorly-informed friends warn you: “You’ll spoil that baby by carrying him so much,” experience and research has shown the opposite. Connected babies actually turn out to be more independent because they learn to trust their caregiving environment. A baby’s cry is a baby’s language, a signal to help the mother increase her sensitivity in the art of baby reading. One of the top tips that we give new parents, especially those who fall into the let- him-cry-it-out crowd is: “The only person who knows how quickly and how sensitively to respond to a baby’s cries is the one who shared an umbilical cord with the baby – mother. Try this baby-reading exercise: Next time baby cries, get behind the eyes of your baby and ask yourself, “If I were my baby, how would I want my mother/father/caregiver to respond?” You will nearly always give the right response.

3. Show baby the magic mirror. When your baby is in the middle of a crying jag and your usual motions that mellow and sounds that soothe aren’t working, place her bare feet against a mirror and let her watch herself fuss. This scene becomes so distracting, and eventually amusing, to baby that she’s likely to stop fussing.

4. Put on a happy face. By 6-8 weeks of age baby can see your face clearly within 12 inches of eye-to-eye distance, so your animated facial expressions will be your most trusted, ever-present baby-soother. When baby is at his or her worst, try to upgrade your sensitivity and understanding and your humorous face. Put on your funniest and most dramatic facial gestures and let baby stare at them.

5. Try the neck nestle and warm fuzzy. One fussy-baby day Martha was wearing out and I needed to come up with some father fussbusters. Martha had her natural built-in fussbuster – breastfeeding. Then a light bulb went on, “I can nurse!” Nursing means comforting, not just breastfeeding, so I used my male nursing strategies. First, dads can try the warm fuzzy. Lie down on the floor or lie back in a chair and drape baby skin-to-skin over your chest and place baby’s ear over your heart. The rhythm of your heartbeat plus the up-and-down motion of your breathing is likely to soothe your baby – and make points with mommy. Try the neck nestle. While walking, dancing, or lying with your baby on your chest, snuggle his head against the front of your neck and drape your chin over baby’s head. Then hum or sing a low-pitch melody. The deeper more monotonous male voice together with the vibration of your cheekbones and neck bones against baby’s sensitive head is likely to lull the tense baby right to sleep. Here’s the Sears’ family “go-to-sleep” song to the tune of Brahm’s lullaby:

Go to sleep, go to sleep,

Go to sleep my little baby.

Go to sleep, go to sleep,

Go to sleep my little girl/boy.

6. Offer a “happy hour” massage. Babies tend to fuss most toward the end of the day when you’re the most tired, which we dub “happy hour.” Journal baby’s usual fussiest period during the day. Comfort or nurse baby down to sleep around an hour or two before the usual fussy period. Then when baby wakes up immediately ease baby into an infant massage. Over time your baby will show and tell you which touches are the most calming.

7. Go outside and play. Take a walk during “happy hour.” The sights and sounds of nature are calming to baby and relaxing for mommy. As you walk past moving cars, different color trees, and children playing in parks, the sights and sounds of nature are natural baby calmers.

8. Enjoy a warm bath together. Recline in a half-full tub and have dad or a friend hand baby to you. Place baby tummy-to-tummy against your chest. If breastfeeding, baby will enjoy half floating while nursing. Leave the faucet running a bit. The drip of the warm water not only provides a soothing sound, but it also keeps the water comfortably warm. When getting in and out of the tub, especially with baby, be particularly careful not to slip, which is why we advise trying this soothing ritual in the presence of someone else to help you.

9. Try moving attractions. You’ll be amazed how many natural baby calmers you have around the house that can distract a fussy baby: a revolving ceiling fan, an aquarium, running water, and pets running around.

10. Try sounds that soothe. Babies are usually calmed by monotonous, low-pitched, humming, rhythmic sounds, such as: a loudly ticking clock, dripping water, vacuum cleaner, fan, air conditioner, dishwasher, washer and dryer, and homemade music medleys. On the other hand, some fussy babies are super-startled by sudden loud noises, such as a blender or garden tools.

11. Dance with your baby. Movement mellows mother and calms babies. Dancing is one of the best baby-calmers because the movements are in three planes of motion: up and down, side to side, back and forth. Babies love these three choreographic movements.

12. Detect a medical cause of baby’s fussing. In 1990, as we were writing “The Baby Book”, we decided to study “colicky” or “fussy” babies to see if there may be a medical cause for why some babies fuss a lot. Sure enough we found two common causes: gastroesophageal reflux (what adults call “heartburn”) and food allergies (either to formula or to a high dose of certain foods in a breastfeeding mother’s diet, especially dairy and wheat). Once the medical cause was corrected, these babies were more comfortable. Of course, there are just some fussy babies, which we call “high need babies,” who simply need to spend lots of touch time in the arms of a caregiver as they get adjusted to life outside the womb, and then they fuss less.

As you work through why your baby fusses and the calming techniques that work, you are learning how to read your baby and you and your baby are developing a mutual trust. Most babies have their fussy peaks in the first few months of life and ease by six months when the medical causes have been corrected, baby calmers have been perfected, and baby starts getting more developmental skills to distract him.

Dr. Bill and Martha Sears are the co-authors of over 40 books on parenting and health, including the bestselling “The Baby Book”, “The Birth Book”, and the upcoming “The Healthy Pregnancy Book”, due out September 2013. With the experience of over 40 years in pediatric practice while raising 8 children, Dr. Bill and Martha stay busy as frequent guests on television and radio programs and speakers at conferences, as well as running their own parenting website, www.AskDrSears.com.