It’s your first few months home with your newborn, and you are overwhelmed by the constant screams of your colicky baby. You love your baby, but it’s stressful and defeating when nothing you are doing helps calm the colic. We’ve got some tips to calm a baby with colic, that will have you back to enjoying your newborn parenthood and being more confident in your parenting abilities.
Out of The Womb
When you think about it, babies spend 9 months in the comfort of the womb. For some babies the transition is seamless and they come out ready for their new world. For others though, it isn’t that easy. Some babies really struggle with the birthing process and aren’t as prepared for the outside world.
We know that babies are safe and surrounded by the amniotic fluid and swaddled by the uterine walls but did you know that the constant, loud rhythmic sound of the womb is louder than a vacuum cleaner? Amazing! While you are going about your day, the baby growing inside of you is being calmed by your constant movements causing them to be bounced and jiggled for many hours. Now, imagine how strange it is for a new infant to come out of that environment and into a still, quiet room, unwrapped and exposed? This can be a shock to their sensitive systems. Some babies will not be able to tolerate this right away and may take some time to adjust. A baby’s way to deal with this shock to their systems is to cry!
What is colic and why is my baby crying inconsolably?
Colic is diagnosed when a baby cries for 3 hours a day, 3 times per week for 3 weeks. It is caused by under stimulation. Your baby has just come from an environment where they felt like they were held 24/7 surrounded by a lot of noise and movement all of the time. Dr. Harvey Karp, a world renowed pediatrician, states that perhaps babies who experience colic are reacting to a sensation called the gastro colic reflex. Not to be confused with acid reflux. All of our bodies go through a process after eating, which is when signals are sent to start making room for more food. Most of us do not feel this reflux, some babies have an overreaction, causing them to cry a lot.
What if you could turn off the crying?
There isn’t a magic ‘off switch’, but these techniques work wonderfully to calm colicky babies. These techniques can also help babies that do not have colic as many babies can spend upwards of 90 minutes crying within a 24 hour period.
The Happiest Baby on the Block
The Happiest Baby on the Block is a program designed by Dr. Harvey Karp. He created a technique for infants from 0-4 months referred to as the 4th trimester and the 5 S’s. Mimicking the womb triggers a reflex called the calming reflex and can be an off switch for crying. The 5’S’s include: swaddling, side/stomach position, shushing, swinging and sucking.
Swaddling gives newborns that sense of nurturing touch they felt nonstop inside of the womb. Swaddling alone may not halt crying immediately but it does stop your baby from flailing and helps to focus their attention which prepares them for the other “S’s” that switch off the crying. It makes your infant feel secure and can also enable you to put them down so that you can have a minute to yourself.
Tips for swaddling:
- Remember to wrap baby tightly enough so that the blankets do not come free, making sure that the legs are loose enough so that the hips have room to flex and move.
- Swaddle with arms down at the sides for full term infants as this will prevent their arms from startling them awake. It also prevents them from being able to free themselves of the swaddle causing loose blankets. *Pre term babies can be swaddled in the flex position (arms up) until they reach their due date.
- If the thought of perfecting the swaddle with a blanket intimidates you, swaddle bags are also a great option!
This position helps calm your newborn as it switches off the Moro “falling” reflex. It also imitates your baby’s position in the womb which begins to activate the calming reflex. This position is only for calming. You should always put your baby to sleep on their back.
Tip for the side stomach position:
- The football hold is a great way to achieve this position.
Sh-sh-sh. New parents may hesitate to shush as they may feel that it is rude. This is not a shush as in to ‘be quiet’ it is more of a calming shush to imitate the sounds that soothed them in the womb 24/7.
Tips for shushing:
- Make sure that you match your baby’s intensity (otherwise they will not hear you.) Once they are calming, you can lower your intensity to match theirs.
- Don’t worry about being too loud for a few minutes as your baby’s hearing is muffled for the first few months anyway and their crying is much louder than your shushing.
- In order to keep the calming reflex activated, having white noise in the background will also help. Be sure to shush passed the ear and not directly into it.
Once your baby has settled, here are some additional ways to maintain the sound without having to exhaust yourself by shushing for hours on end!
- A sound machine or CD with sounds from the womb or white noise
- A fan (kitchen fan may be loudest)
- Running the vacuum cleaner (hey, you’ll get a chance to clean too!)
Rhythmic movement is one of the most powerful tools that we have to calm our babies. It mimics the jiggling in the womb which turns on motion sensors in the brain activating the calming reflex.
Tips for Swinging/Jiggling:
While swinging/jiggling your baby, match your baby’s intensity. If your little one is really upset you can use more vigor when calming them in the beginning then you can slow down once baby is relaxed. The goal is to have their head bobbing a little like Jell-O, which is what triggers the calming reflex.
If you feel frustrated or overwhelmed in the moment, please remember to take a breath and put the baby down in a safe place if you need to: NEVER SHAKE your baby hard. These techniques require gentle jiggle movements, not shaking. Don’t be afraid to ask for help either. As moms we want to know we can take care of our own child, but it’s okay to need a break!
Putting your screaming baby in a swing device will likely end up achieving nothing! When your baby is upset, they will not enjoy the swing. Instead, calm them first and then place them in the swing to keep them calm. If they become upset again, grab the back of the swing and give it a jiggle for 20 seconds to reactivate the reflex. Then let it go again on the highest setting. It is a good idea to ensure their safety by securing them properly into the swing while keeping your baby’s arms wrapped to prevent them from whacking themselves which would cause them upset all over again.
* Make sure that the swing is reclined and not upright so that your baby’s neck and head are not doubled over preventing proper air supply.
If the swing is not as effective as you would like or your arms are getting tired, you can also try baby wearing, brisk walks, dancing, rocking chairs or rhythmic pats on the bottom which can also be very effective.
Once your baby starts to calm with the other S’s, it is time to introduce the last one. Sucking is a baby’s self- calming tool. Some babies are born with a tremendous need to suck. In the womb, they spend a great deal of time sucking during the last few months. It is easy for them because the soft walls of the uterus kept their hands conveniently right beside them. When they come out, their arms flail about and they do not have the coordination to be able to suck on their hands for more than a few seconds.
Tips for Sucking:
- Sucking can be on the breast, your finger or a pacifier
- Never dip a pacifier in honey or sugar
- Do not offer the pacifier when your baby is already upset (unless they take it by nature.) Instead, wait until they have calmed and then offer it.
- To get them to take it, you can slowly offer it to them and once they start to suck, gently tug it as if you are going to take it out. This will prompt them to suck harder to grasp it. You can practice this several times a day to strengthen their suck.
These techniques can seem simple to implement but since you are trying to trigger a reflex the more precise you are, the more effective it will be in calming your baby. Many parents benefit from seeing the techniques done in action in order to do them effectively. The Happiest Baby has a wonderful DVD which demonstrates Dr. Karp performing the 5 S’s.
Implementing these tips to calm a baby with colic can also have a tremendous effect on your own emotional well-being. When a parent can quickly and lovingly stop their little one from crying, it can help reduce or prevent postpartum mood disorder. If these techniques are not working effectively, plan a trip to your doctor to make sure that there are no other underlying health issues.