The Science of Baby SoothingHeather Turgeon
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Its taken me awhile to shake the new-motherhood dance — that unconscious sway and bounce mode I adopted during my sons first year of life. In fact, when I pick him up now (which has become more difficult since hes edging toward three-and-a-half, and my six-month pregnant belly has taken on a decidedly torpedo shape), I still move that way. And I can tell he still likes it.
Many of our soothing behaviors are instinctual, biologically-driven movements and sounds that no one has to teach us. But still, for most of human history, we had generations of other parents around to watch and learn from. To fill in the gap, psychological and neuroscience research — and a trusty copy of books like those by Dr. Harvey Karp — help us catch on to the best ways to sooth babies. And most of these soothing techniques resonate somewhere deep in our little ones growing brains.
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1: Bouncing and Swaying
Babies are soothed by motion long before they enter the world. In fact, the vestibular system — the structures of the inner ear that allow us to detect gravity, movement, and balance — is one of the first senses to develop. Just 10 weeks after sperm meets egg, a fetus becomes sensitive to motion, and after five months in the womb, the system is fully up and running. That means that when youre pregnant, your lemon-sized baby is constantly sensing the moves and shifts of your body, especially while you walk.
So its no wonder that when a baby is born, hes going to expect the same treatment; imagine going from four months of non-stop bouncing and springing to the flat stillness of a bassinet. Thats why front-pack walks, stroller rides, yoga balls, or car trips do wonders for babies, especially until the second half of the first year of life, when theyre able to create their own rocking, rolling, and crawling movements as ways of self-soothing.
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2: Seeing your face or hearing your voice
Babies love the familiar. Theyre pattern-seekers who learn about the world by recognizing, remembering, and finding consistent motifs. We know that their ears perk up to familiar voices, and even newborns remember faces theyve seen before, especially if the people are reoccurring. Regularity, whether its through similar day-to-day feeding places, repetitive songs, or predictable nighttime routines, is key to comforting babies.
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3: Going outside
Parents know that a quick fix for baby fussiness is to step outside. First of all, the change of context is key — moving environments settle babies because they have new things to look at and experiment with.
But the other reason stepping outside works is that humans are programmed from birth to be in the outdoors. We evolved through spending much of our time in nature, and somewhere, deep in the back of our brains, we feel most in sync there. Sure, as adults weve gotten used to our square constructed home and office spaces, but grass, leaves, and fresh air, (not carpet, walls, and air conditioning) feel right to a baby.
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4: Your touch
The only sense more precious than movement is touch. Just five weeks after conception, embryos can sense touch to their faces, and by 12 weeks gestation, almost the entire body is sensitive to touch. That means that after birth, babies are highly sensitive and responsive to contact its their number one mode for learning about the world and attaching to the most important people in their lives.
The famous wire mother experiment by psychologist Harry Harlow in the 1950s showed this clearly. Baby monkeys spent all their time nuzzling with a soft cloth inanimate mother (even though she had no food), only using the wire mother with a milk bottle for nourishment and then running right back to cozy mom.
Touch isnt just soothing. It stimulates important parts of the brain that are involved in physical growth and thinking skills. And babies who are held and massaged tend to sleep better, be in a better mood, and are less likely to get sick.
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5: Singing and dancing
You may think you have the most cringe-worthy voice, but to your baby, youre a vocal genius. Studies suggest that music, melodies, and rhythm have special roots in our brains and they are turned on in full force by the time our babies are born. For example, last year a study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences showed that young babies inherently rock out to classical music and rhythmic beats they change tempo with the music, and they smile more when they successfully coordinate their movements to the music.
Parents across most cultures naturally change their pitch and speak in musical voices with babies. Somehow, we know its magically soothing and attention-grabbing. And if you have a restless six-month-old on your hands, notice that if you sit her up and sing an even, rhythmic song with hand movements, youre likely to boost her spirits.
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6: Your baby's personality
Of course, even though most of us will have the tried-and-true techniques in our repertoire, our babies each have unique nervous systems, temperaments, likes, and dislikes. As much as it helps to have the standard practices in mind, its also important to watch your baby. Shes likely to tell you (better than any book) what works for her.
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