15 Sensory-Based Ways to Calm Your Baby

Appealing to your baby's sight, sound, taste, smell and touch can soothe your baby in the womb—and stop their crying once they're born.

Your baby spent somewhere around 40 weeks in a quiet, warm, dark womb, then suddenly emerged into a loud, bright, open world. (The camera! The lights! The booming voices!) Talk about a sensory-filled transition. From their first day on Earth, your newborn starts using the senses that they developed in utero. The overwhelming onslaught of sights and sounds is more than enough to warrant some crying.

Take heart, though. Research indicates that engaging a baby's senses can bring them back to that mellow state of mind they enjoyed while cocooned in the uterus. For example, a 2019 study in PLoS One found that swaddling, sound, and movement produced a calming response in infants under 6 months.

"It's an adjustment for an infant to get used to being outside the womb," says Lise Eliot, Ph.D., associate professor of neuroscience at Chicago Medical School and author of What's Going on in There?: How the Brain and Mind Develop in the First Five Years of Life. "But babies adapt pretty quickly," says Dr. Elliot, especially when they experience sensations they've already been exposed to while in the womb.

Read on for sensory-based tips to quiet your baby's crying.

Soothing With Touch

According to the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center, touch is one of the first senses to form around 8 weeks gestation. In the first trimester, a fetus can recognize sensations on the lips and nose. Later in the second trimester, sensory receptors spread to the limbs and abdomen. By the third trimester, a fetus can recognize sensation in every part of their body.

In the womb

A pregnant belly massage can help a baby become accustomed to a parent's touch—and it lays the groundwork as a pacifying tactic post-birth, says Michelle Bennett, M.D., a pediatrician in Lexington, Kentucky.

During pregnancy, your baby feels safe and secure in the cozy living quarters of your uterus, and the motion of you going about your day is soothing. So, Dr. Bennett recommends starting to massage your belly in the second trimester when you're relaxed, such as while you're doing yoga. Soft, circular rubs on the belly do the trick.

In the world

Hold and cuddle your baby skin to skin. "Everything we know suggests that newborns want not just close confinement but also human touch," Dr. Eliot says. Skin-to-skin contact (also known as kangaroo care) is even better than your average cuddling.

According to UNICEF's Baby Friendly Initiative, the benefits of skin-to-skin include:

  • Calming and relaxing parent and baby
  • Regulating a baby's heart rate
  • Helping with digestion and feeding
  • Regulating a baby's body temperature
  • Colonizing baby's skin with a parent's healthy bacteria, protecting from infection
  • Stimulating hormones to produce breastmilk and attachment

Plus, newborns that share bare-chested snuggles with their caregivers cry less, according to a 2016 study from researchers at Vanderbilt University.

Treat them to a massage. Give your infant a rub each time you lay them down to rest. Be gentle and responsive to your baby's pleasure or discomfort.

Here's one method for how to massage a baby: Place your infant on their tummy. Gently stroke their shoulders, back, arms and legs for about one minute each. Then place them on their back and spend about one minute extending and flexing their arms and legs.

Infant massage is beneficial because it improves your baby's muscle tone and helps pacify them, says Louise Weadock, R.N., M.P.H., founder of Access Nursing Services in New York and New Jersey. Now that's a win-win!

Soothing With Taste

What a gestational parent eats—fruits, vegetables and spices like garlic, onion and vanilla—affects the flavors of the amniotic fluid and breast milk, says Julie Mennella, Ph.D., a biopsychologist at Monell Chemical Sciences Center at the University of Chicago. There's even a name for this: prenatal flavor learning.

In the womb

Eat wisely. By the second trimester, your baby will start to taste the amniotic fluid that surrounds them. Exactly what they taste is partly up to you.

Dr. Menella's research, published in Pediatrics found that prenatal and early postnatal exposure to a flavor enhanced an infants later enjoyment of that flavor in solid food. Naturally, newborns are hardwired to crave breast milk, which tastes appealingly sweet.

In the world

Eat many of the same foods you did while pregnant. Breastfed babies are at an advantage because they continue to get familiar flavors through their gestational parent's milk, says Mennella. While your baby is nursing, try to keep a similar diet to when you were pregnant—that familiarity can be comforting.

Not breastfeeding? Not a problem. Formula is also appealingly sweet, like breastmilk. In addition, you can try a vanilla-scented pacifier when your baby needs help calming down. See, just like you, your baby has a sweet tooth—and evidence suggests they even had it in utero.

In the womb, when sweet substances are introduced through a parent's diet, their baby will swallow more amniotic fluid, says Ashanti W. Woods, M.D., a pediatrician at Mercy Medical Center in Baltimore. Researchers in the Annals of Nutrition and Metabolism hypothesize this preference for sweet over bitter foods may have evolutionary roots—attracting kids to energy-dense foods and avoiding toxins.

A sugary-smelling pacifier can play into their penchant for sweets, easing them through a particularly fussy moment.

RELATED: Nursing 101: All About Breastfeeding

Soothing With Sound

According to the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), by about 18 weeks, your baby can hear sounds inside your body, like your heartbeat. And by 27-29 weeks, they can hear things outside your body, like your voice. By full term—around 36 weeks—they can hear as well as an adult.

In the womb

Play your baby a lullaby. During the third trimester, you may feel your baby shifting in response to external sounds. A study in Developmental Science found that fetuses over 33 weeks wiggled around more when they could hear a lullaby playing.

Babies likely hear a garbled version of their parent's voice even more prominently than their thumping heart, Weadock says. They also hear what you hear—such as your partner talking or the latest Lorde jam.

In the world

Talk, sing and read to your baby. Your familiar voice, like your smell and your touch, is a huge consolation to your infant. Also, perhaps because of all the gurgling they hear in your belly, babies tend to be soothed by white noise like fans, vacuum cleaners or recordings of rainfall. You can also download zen sounds, such as a heartbeat or a mellow song, to add to your bag of settling-down tricks.

Keep the volume low. If your infant is moody, turn everything down a notch—literally. Even though a baby's auditory perception is less sensitive than yours, their inner ear is still quite vulnerable to loud sounds, Dr. Eliot says. So, nix blaring noises and places in the first few months of life.

Soothing With Smell

Olfactory receptors, located high in the nasal chamber, are formed by week 8. These receptors are activated during inhalation, sucking, and swallowing. Like taste, smells acquired in utero can impact preferences after a baby is born.

In the womb

Pick a favorite scent. After birth, a baby seeks out familiar fragrances to find comfort. Newborns can recognize gestational parents by their odor within hours after birth, Mennella says. Maternal scent is very calming for the baby. Further, accumulated research has found that maternal scent can reduce pain in newborns, help infants focus on face and eyes, and reduce fearful responses to unfamiliar faces.

In the world

Keep familiar smells around at birth. Your baby is born covered in a white cheese-like substance called the vernix. It smells similar to the womb and you can use this scent to your advantage. "Don't allow too much of the baby's vernix to be wiped off," says Dr. Bennett. The odor is familiar to them and will add calm after a bumpy ride into the world.

Don't mask your scent. In the weeks following birth, avoid perfume and deodorant. "Just stick with what baby is familiar with," Dr. Eliot says. Stepping out? When you leave your baby with a sitter, give them a piece of clothing with your signature smell to console them. "This has been shown to help the baby breathe better and calm down," Dr. Woods says.

Soothing With Sight

A baby's eyes are closed until about 26 weeks gestation. It's obviously dark in the womb, but when they do open their lids, enough natural light seeps in during the final two months for them to see their hands and leg movements, research published in Developmental Psychobiology shows.

In the womb

Prepare to stare. In late pregnancy, a fetus may turn toward a light source shone on your abdomen. When they make their big debut in the world, they won't be able to see much, but what they can focus on is a strong source of delight: You. According to a study in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), babies have a preprogrammed desire to look into your face.

In the world

Brighten up their nursery. A fussy infant may simply be in need of stimulation. That's where bold patterns and colors come in. "Babies can basically only see really bright colors," Dr. Eliot says. So neutral, pastel-colored objects are lost on them because they can't discriminate among the soft hues.

A blanket, toy or mobile with interesting patterns in punchy colors, like yellow, red and orange, can capture a young infant's attention and help wind down their whimpers, she adds.

Make eye contact. If you've been pacing, singing and pulling out every trick in the book to calm your baby, here's something to try: Stop everything and look into their big, bright eyes. Your baby arrives with an ability to focus on your face while feeding—a big boon to bonding (a baby's vision is blurry beyond 8 to 10 inches for the first few months). So, take a break from the whirl of mixing bottles, throwing in laundry, and prepping dinner for some eye contact. Connecting is calming.

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