How to Raise a Happy Baby

With a little know-how and a lot of love, you can raise a calm, contented baby who can soothe themselves.

smiling mom changing baby's diaper on changing table in nursery
Photo: Shutterstock

I'll never forget when I came home to find my mother folding laundry on the living room sofa while my newborn son was screaming his lungs out upstairs in his crib. "How long has the baby been crying?" I asked. Breast milk soaked my shirt as I shot up the steps, and she continued calmly making piles of miniature socks. "A few minutes," she called after me. "I was going to finish this up and then get him."

In my mother's day, the wisdom was that if you picked up an infant the minute they cried, you'd spoil them. So she thought that she was not only getting ahead of the laundry for me but that she was also building my baby's character. Research shows that this dated parenting myth isn't true.

"Babies indicate a need through gestures like wiggling when uncomfortable or opening and closing their mouths when hungry. If that doesn't get your attention, they'll resort to crying," notes Darcia Narvaez, Ph.D., professor of psychology at the University of Notre Dame in South Bend, Indiana, and the co-editor of Evolution, Early Experience, and Human Development.

According to Dr. Narvaez, meeting your newborn's needs before they get distressed helps build a calmer brain, self-confidence, and the expectation that they will be cared for, which leads to your baby being able to comfort themselves.

Of course, no baby will always smile—nor should they. "Babies' needs should be largely met in the first six months," Maria Gartstein, Ph.D., a psychologist at Washington State University in Pullman, Washington tells Parents. "But after that, you needn't rescue them from every negative emotion. They should get the chance to regulate and soothe themselves."

This road map will help you guide your little one to their happy place and raise a happy baby.

Consider Your Baby's Point of View

Experts of previous generations didn't realize that newborns aren't yet shrewd enough to manipulate their parents. "That's a skill we acquire as we get older," notes Jane Morton, M.D., clinical professor of pediatrics at Stanford University School of Medicine in Palo Alto, California. Instead, a newborn cries and fusses to have their basic needs met and to adjust to life outside the uterus.

Until now, your baby has spent most of their time being held tightly inside a cozy womb. "Suddenly, [they're] exploded into this noisy, bright, busy world, and it's so different from what [they] know," says Dr. Morton. When your baby becomes overwhelmed, you can soothe them by putting gentle pressure on their tummy, holding and rocking them, making shushing noises, and offering a pacifier or a clean finger to suck on—all things that remind them of the womb.

Cuddle and Caress

Numerous studies have found that positive touch—especially slow caresses and gentle stroking—makes an infant feel safe and comfortable by reducing their cortisol level, a stress hormone, and stimulating the production of oxytocin, a feel-good hormone that's calming and promotes bonding.

"It's important to have lots of physical contact in the early months," says Dr. Gartstein. "Observe what your little one seems to like and dislike and then follow [their] lead."

Skin-to-skin contact is built into breastfeeding. If you're bottle-feeding, you can get some extra skin contact by pulling up your shirt and holding your baby's bare body to your belly while feeding them. At bath time, gently massage your baby's scalp, tummy, arms, legs, hands, and feet if they like it. And whenever your munchkin coos and leans toward your touch, don't hold back on the hugs and kisses. Bonus: Those sweet snuggles also stimulate "feel good" neurotransmitters in parents.

Plan for Lots of Sleep

When your sweetie is exhausted, their mood will hardly be all rainbows and unicorns. Let sleep take precedence over pretty much everything else to improve the chances of a peaceful, cooing baby during waking hours.

Dr. Gartstein co-authored a study comparing Dutch babies with American babies and found that the babies from the Netherlands appeared generally happier and easier to soothe. One of the likely reasons for this is that the Dutch emphasize sleep. "For example, when Dutch parents bring their baby home from the hospital, they often send out cards inviting friends to visit at specific times so that they don't interrupt the baby's sleep schedule," notes Dr. Gartstein.

If your little one starts showing signs of sleepiness, that's your cue to put them into their crib. Here are a few tips for ensuring a successful snooze:

  • Use white noise to drown out any household noises. Keep it at a low volume and away from your baby as much as possible to protect their hearing.
  • Time your errands for after your baby wakes up, not before a nap, when they're likely to doze off in the stroller or car seat.
  • Aim for consistency to help your baby create a sleep routine. When you have to deviate from the routine and your baby is crabby later, see if you can squeeze in another nap before bedtime to make up for it.

"Sleep is one of a baby's primary activities, and we have to be ready to deal with it," says Dr. Gartstein.

Tune In to Your Baby

We get it. You're busy. There aren't nearly enough hours in the day to run a household, earn a living, return texts and e-mails, plus post cute pics of your little one on Instagram. However, one of the most important things you can do to have a happy baby is to observe and interact with them to learn their cues.

"What children need the most is an attuned caretaker," says Jenn Mann, Psy.D., author of SuperBaby. "Being present, through eye contact, smiles, and loving gestures gives your baby the respect [they] deserve."

Bonding with your newborn doesn't have to be complicated, so you can start simple. Here are a few tips:

  • Take time to play one-on-one with your sweetie before you leave for work.
  • Sing songs while you make breakfast.
  • Gaze into their eyes while you change their diaper and talk to them as if they're hanging on to your every word (your baby probably is, even if they don't know what you're saying).
  • Remove temptations like your phone or laptop from the nursery.
  • If you're busy around the house, narrate to your baby what you're doing while they watch.

Prioritizing bonding doesn't mean you should pressure yourself to spend every moment interacting with your baby. They'll also need some downtime, and most babies don't want constant stimulation. "Pay attention to [them]. If [they] start yawning, arching [their] back, or turning away from you, it's time for a break," says Dr. Gartstein. Don't keep going until your baby becomes so overwrought that they cry.

Offer Choices (But Not Too Many)

"We will never understand what it feels like to be a baby," notes Dr. Morton. Imagine you have no say about what or when you eat, where or when you sleep, or what you get to wear. Someone else gets to make all the decisions 24/7. Ditto the music playing in your house, the lighting in your bedroom, and whether you will hop in the car and go for a ride or stay home.

This is your infant's life—always at your mercy and never in control of anything. Keeping that thought in the back of your mind can make your baby's fussy bursts more understandable.

As your baby grows, you can foster their development and boost their happiness by bringing them to the decision table. "I'm a fan of two acceptable choices," says Dr. Mann. This empowers your baby without overwhelming them. So let them pick between the steamed broccoli and the pureed peas or between the grey or teal spoon. Your baby is happy. You're happy. Done and done.

Get Out of the House

Sometimes a grumpy baby just needs a change in scenery. Take a stroll in the park and push them on the swings (if your baby is at least 6 months old and can sit unsupported). Let them feel the sun on their face, hear the trees rustle, smell the fresh air, and people-watch, or more precisely, baby-watch.

Babies love seeing other babies, says Dr. Morton, who recommends having your little one socialize with the same children repeatedly—on play dates, at the library, or in a music class—so they start forming familiarity.

Let's be honest: Getting out is great for your mood too. Caring for a baby is hard, isolating work, and you shouldn't feel guilty about wanting a break. If you're bored or unhappy, do something about it. Join a parenting group, stop missing that book club you love, and talk more openly with your partner.

"Children with depressed mothers are more vulnerable to becoming depressed themselves," cautions Dr. Morton. If you start feeling overwhelmed, crying excessively, experiencing changes in sleeping or eating habits, or being unable to think clearly or make decisions, those are signs that you should see your health care provider right away.

Do a Body Check

Unfortunately, babies don't talk, so sometimes you have to be a detective about what might make them cranky. If your little one has slept well, eaten, passed gas, and doesn't have a dirty diaper or fever, do a body check.

Make sure clothing isn't irritating sensitive skin, and check their fingers and toes in case a hair is wound around one of them. Dr. Morton also recommends doing something with your baby that ordinarily makes them happy to see if you can distract them. Maybe give your baby a massage, put them in a warm bath, or rock them in their favorite baby swing.

Know When It's OK to Let Them Cry a Little

As your baby grows, it's inevitable that they will become frustrated or upset as they try new things like sitting up, crawling, walking, and feeding themselves. In these cases, a few tears can be developmentally appropriate.

"It's a dance between a parent and a baby," says Dr. Morton. One of the most important things for your child is to feel capable, and the look of pride on your baby's face as they walk across the floor for the first time on their own will say it all.

The struggle was worth it. Because you will have shown you'll be there to turn to during the tough as well as the good moments, your baby will feel confident enough to attempt new challenges. And that's the goal!

Was this page helpful?
Related Articles