When your baby won't stop fussing, here's what to do so both of you can relax.

crying baby
Credit: Linda Farwell

Why Is Baby Crying?

Nothing gets a parent's attention like a baby's cries. Those howls are more jarring than an alarm clock buzzing at 6 a.m. (Too bad you can't just hit snooze!) While it's unrealistic to expect a fuss-free day, all hope isn't lost for taming the tears before baby's cries reach a glass-shattering pitch. Armed with these soothing strategies, you'll be able to replace your child's shrieks with soft coos. Aah, music to your ears.

If your child is crying and there's an odor in the air, you know what to do next. But aside from changing a diaper or offering the breast or bottle, parents often feel helpless when it comes to finding the magical method that comforts their baby.

To unravel that mystery, it's important to understand why babies might make a fuss. "The womb is a rich symphony of sensations," says Harvey Karp, MD, creator of The Happiest Baby on the Block DVD (Trinity Home Entertainment). But when we put kids to sleep with no movement in a room by themselves, it's like sensory deprivation. "Babies are often reacting to the lack of rhythmic sounds and motions they experienced when they were in the womb," says Dr. Karp.

"They may also cry because they can't settle down," says Laura Jana, MD, coauthor of Heading Home with Your Newborn (American Academy of Pediatrics). "When you're tired, nothing is more frustrating than not falling asleep." Instead of tossing and turning, which babies can't do, they wail.

vacuuming with baby
Credit: Kaysh Shinn

How Can I Soothe Baby?

Here's how to pacify your little squealer according to what he sees, hears, and feels. Keep in mind, Dr. Jana says, that different children will respond to different soothing strategies. The trick is to experiment until you find what works.

Sight: Who wouldn't feel wired when the lights are on? Create a calming environment by dimming the lights, says Dr. Jana. And while a mobile could have a hypnotic effect, it could also backfire by providing too much stimulation when baby just wants to wind down from the day.

Sound: Certain sounds can be a powerful way to trigger what Dr. Karp calls the "calming reflex." Vacuums and fans that create white background noise can produce this effect. And it never hurts to put on some peaceful music, Dr. Jana says.

Touch: "Human contact is important for healthy development," Dr. Jana says. "And I don't know anyone who doesn't like a good massage!" Gently rub a part of baby's body, such as her legs, arms, or feet. In addition, try kangaroo care -- lay your naked baby belly down against your bare chest for skin-to-skin contact.

How Can I Comfort a Colicky Baby?

If your child cries for longer than three hours a day for more than three days a week and there's no clear reason for his distress, you're dealing with colic. So what should you do? Try Dr. Karp's five strategies, in this order.

holding baby
Credit: Kaysh Shinn
  • Swaddle baby.
  • Hold him on his side or tummy-down on your forearm.
  • Say "Shhh, shhh, shhh" (as loud as a running shower) in baby's ear to mimic the sounds he heard in the womb.
  • Swing baby back and forth with a light jiggling motion while supporting his head and neck.
  • Give him something to suck on, whether it's the breast, the bottle, a pacifier, or your finger.

What Positions May Calm Baby?

If your baby won't stop crying, try holding her in a different way from usual. A new position may help a gassy baby feel better, or the novelty of seeing the world from a new vantage point may stop tears in their tracks. Here are some positions to try:

holding baby
Credit: Kaysh Shinn
  • The over-the-shoulder hold
  • The football hold (facedown, across your forearm)
  • The facing-forward hold (head against your chest with one arm under baby's bottom)

How Do You Swaddle a Baby?

Many infants want to feel snug and secure, a sensation you can create by swaddling them in a blanket. While you want a tight fit, remember to keep baby's head uncovered, and don't overbundle her. Here are some basics:

swaddling instructions from the ultimate receiving blanket
Credit: Devon Jarvis
  • Create an upside-down triangle by folding a lightweight blanket in half (leave the corner of the bottom piece exposed, if needed for coverage).
  • Center your baby along the longest edge of the blanket, cross her arms, then proceed to wrap her up by folding the left flap over her, tucking it behind her back.
  • Next, flip up the bottom corner and use the right flap to secure it in place. To do this, pull the flap across baby's body and tuck the point of the covering under her.
  • The ultimate receiving blanket has directions on its tag ($25; swaddledesigns.com).

Real-Mom Sanity-Saving Solutions

"When my daughter was very little and she wouldn't stop crying, my husband prepared a bath in her little tub and let her sit in it fully dressed with her lovey in her arms. As soon as her body touched the warm water, she stopped crying and looked at us mesmerized, as if that was exactly what she had been waiting for." -- Barbara Stefanacci, Clifton, New Jersey

"We found, by accident, a solution for nonstop crying. The phone rang, and the answering machine turned on. Our son was immediately silent and listened intently to the machine. Now, when he gets hysterical, I play the answering machine. He calms right down, and he claps when the messages are done." -- Dawn Raab, Euclid, Ohio

"No matter what, if my 7-month-old son is crying and I play the song 'Hey There Delilah' by Plain White T's, over and over again, he will stop crying!" -- Rachel Chilson, St. Charles, Missouri

"When my triplets turned 6 months and were fussy, I would recite their favorite Dr. Seuss book, Mr. Brown Can Moo! Can You? I knew it by heart, and I would recite it softly. They would quiet down so they could hear the story." -- Jamye Peterson, Grove City, Pennsylvania

More Soothing Tips and Products

  • Sometimes just walking baby around -- giving him a tour of the house or the neighborhood -- will make him stop crying.
  • It's hard not to jump at every whimper when your infant is younger than a few months, but as he reaches 3 or 4 months, don't react so quickly when he fusses. Give him a chance to relax himself.
  • No harm in trying drugstore remedies: pacifiers, such as Mam's, satisfy an infant's urge to suck ($3 and up; mass merchants), Infants' Mylicon fights gas ($13-$15; mass merchants), and Baby's Bliss Gripe Water soothes a tummy ($12; Babies "R" Us, Walgreens).
  • If you don't already own something that produces a soothing hum (such as an air purifier or fan), you might try Conair's Sound Therapy machine, which mimics rain and other sounds ($20; amazon.com).
  • Suzi Tortora, author of The Dancing Dialogue (Brookes), recommends these CDs: Music for Dreaming, Volumes 1 & 2>, The Planet Sleeps, Garden of the Gods, Sea & Silence

Copyright © Used with permission from American Baby magazine.

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