I am often asked by my clients how I manage to settle their babies so easily during our photography session together.
Having had two children myself and having worked with newborns on a weekly basis for a few years now, I guess I have picked up a few thoughts and skills over the years on how to settle newborn babies.
So, I started writing a blog post that was aimed at new Photographers to help with their newborn sessions. I thought a set of tips on how to make a newborn photography session run smoothly was a great way to share my skills. So here is the link for Photographers on how to get the best out of your newborn photography session.
But as I was writing it, I realised that basically every tip I have applies to the home situation as well.
So here are my top ten tips to settle newborn babies. These tips are all inspired by how I work in my photography studio with babies but adapted to suit you in your home:
1. Temperature control
Invest in a thermostat for your baby’s nursery. The Gro Egg is a good one but I am sure there are plenty of others on the market.
Is this a must have item? Of course not. But for me, it gave me peace of mind in terms of knowing that my baby’s room was not too hot or too cold at night when I put them to bed. There is an excellent article about optimum room temperature here.
When I was a new parent, one of the best tips I received from someone was to make sure my baby was warm enough at night.
We are all paranoid about SIDS and rightly so. Having a safe sleep space for your baby is essential. Personally however, I was finding that I was so paranoid about not over heating my baby, I was actually under dressing her sometimes. Then a friend introduced me to the joy of Grobags for sleeping. I absolutely loved using Grobags. They are a sleeping bag for babies and there are many different brands on the market so I am not necessarily recommending this brand, it’s just that it is the only brand I have had experience with.
The best thing about a sleeping bag is of course is that your baby stays warm all night which can certainly help them stay settled as they are not waking up due to being cold. There is also no chance of loose blankets covering their face at any time. But a huge bonus with the Grobag brand is that they come with a guide that tells you what to dress your baby in according to the temperature and the thickness of the Grobag you are using. And they also come with a mini thermostat if you don’t have one.
2. Remain calm
As a new parents its normal to feel stressed and anxious sometimes. Having a baby is such a huge change.
When your baby is crying and won’t settle and it’s 3am and you are just so tired it can all feel too much. However just remember: This too, shall pass.
I really like that saying. Panicking and stressing about it will not help in the slightest and if anything it could make matters worse.
Your newborn baby still thinks they are actually part of you. They have no concept whatsoever that they are a separate person until they are around 6 months of age. How freaky is that? But not really that freaky when you think about the fact that they have been living inside your body for the past 9 months. Ever wonder sometimes how amazing it is that you wake up a few minutes before them and then they wake and cry out? You are connected to each other in a way that is almost magical when you think about it.
So, if you are stressed, your baby will pick up on this stress, guaranteed.
If you feel yourself getting worked up and stressed then stand back, check yourself, take a breather, walk out of the room to re-group. If your partner is home, go for a walk outside on your own for a while. Look after yourself. Take a bath, go and see your best friend. Go and see a movie. Remember that millions of women around the world right now are holding screaming babies. They are changing nappies. They are sitting up dog tired at 4am. You are not alone.
They will sleep. They will stop crying. This too shall pass.
3. Don’t try to do everything
The washing can wait. You can always order pizza for dinner and your house is clean enough.
When I was pregnant with my first child, a wise friend gave me the two best pieces of advice ever, and I am happy to pass these on to as many people as possible.
- When people offer to do things to help, always say YES THANK YOU.
- When your husband is bathing the baby, as long as his/her head is not under the water, he is doing it right.
The second one made me laugh since I know myself that I can sometimes feel like my way is best and that my husband should be doing it MY way since its tried and tested and it works! But its not productive to practise this. Your partner needs to work out for themselves how to do things and as long as no one is being harmed, let them work it out. Step back, let them find their own way and make mistakes on their own. Try not to take over but rather leave the room and do something else. You will help them grow their own confidence this way by showing them you trust them.
If you don’t do this, you may also be making a rod for your own back. If you don’t want to be the one who does everything, you need to give them some leeway and space without criticising or taking over.
My husband and I always settled our babies differently. What worked for me didn’t work for him and vice versa. It was important for me to give him the time and the space to learn his own method and it was well worth it. It meant that our babies could be settled by either one of us.
4. Slow Down
I read somewhere once that the average time it takes to settle a baby to sleep is 20 minutes. To me this sounded about right as an average. Remembering the word average and everything it means.
When I had my first child I quickly learnt that there are two opinionated camps out there when it comes to babies and sleep. The people who use methods for settling babies whether they be control crying or hybrid versions of this (there are a multitude of tried and tested methods out there) and then there are the people who are 100% opposed to this.
I have friends who sit strongly on both sides of these camps and who are not shy in expressing their opinions about what is right and what is wrong. Quite frankly I would say that both sides of these camps can often be highly judgemental and ill informed.
It’s ridiculous that there are such opposing opinions when you think about it. There are so many shades of grey.
I don’t want to be a fence sitter. I certainly don’t think it’s the right thing to leave a newborn baby to cry it out as a sleep and settling method but Im quite sure that no one believes that anymore these days. Settling methods like versions of controlled crying aren’t recommended on younger babies. But in all honestly I do not judge anyone for doing what they think is right for them and is right for their baby. Each family situation is different and there is not a “one size fits all” answer out there.
It’s good to remember that just because something works for someone else, it just might not work for you and that is ok. We’re not robots. We’re humans with our own personalities and biological needs and idiosyncrasies. Every baby is unique.
If anyone ever tells you what babies ‘should’ be doing sleep wise by a certain age, just remember it’s complete rubbish. I mean, if only babies got a memo when they’re six months old informing them that from this date forward they can still cry, but most likely mummy wont come in from now on if its between the hours of 10pm and 7am because now you’re old enough to take care of yourself. Someone wrote that in a book so it must be true.
If only babies could just learn to tell the time, or learn to read memos and books then life would be so much easier!
When babies wake up screaming frequently, they are trying to communicate something to you in the only way they can. If we knew what that was every time, we’d be rich!
So basically, it is up to you to work out how you want to approach it and how you want to respond. YOU are truly the best person to decide what is best for you and YOUR baby. You know your own limits. Only you will know what is best for your baby, not someone who has never met you or your baby but decided to write a book based on their own experiences. Read it all and take it in but ultimately trust yourself.
Babies and sleep routines change constantly so what may “work” for you today may not work in a few weeks time. Having a newborn baby means that for a time, you might just need to be adaptable and open to responding to a human who is growing and learning and who has you as the centre of their universe.
Personally I think that on a whole, settling a newborn is easiest with cuddles and time and patience. Slowing down and accepting that things are the way they are will get you most of the way there to having that baby settled.
My advice is just to cuddle your baby for longer during unsettled periods. Put on a movie to watch while you’re doing it (you cant do this when they get to toddler age so enjoy it now). Give in to the time it may take to settle your baby and you may just find it doesn’t take as long as you thought.
What were my own babies like? My first baby slept through the night by 8 weeks and was one of those amazingly well settled babies and everyone in my mother’s group wanted to know what my secret was. The thing is, there was no secret. It was just who she is and she is still a good solid sleeper to this day.
My second baby was nothing like this. He didn’t sleep through the night until he was about 15 months and now he’s 3 and it’s still touch and go. He sometimes sleeps though but his default is to wake up and want me. In terms of settling techniques, I basically did the same things with him as I did for my daughter (which was basically responding quickly every time and taking the time) and these things made no difference.
Friends suggested things for me to try, things that worked for them and their babies, like sleep school and various methods but I never felt they were right for us. Of course I tried a couple of different ideas here and there. I watched DVDs and read some more books and followed a method recommended by my maternal health nurse but nothing worked. He always reverted back to waking. It turned out he has asthma and has trouble breathing so when he wakes up frequently, that is often part of the reason. Leaving him to cry it out would have been dangerous and I guess somewhere deep down my instincts were telling me this.
Here are some things that I believe are truths and things that worked for me and my babies:
- Babies will do what they are going to do no matter what you try. They will either sleep through or they wont
- Just when you think something has worked or they are in a pattern it will probably change
- If you cuddle your baby to sleep then you are certainly not locked in to doing this every single time no matter what people try to say to you
- After each feed, hold your baby upright for longer than you think you need to so they can digest their milk properly
- Make sure they are warm enough
- If your baby is having a hard time settling themselves, try cuddling your baby to the point of near sleep and let them do that little bit at the end themselves
- By responding to your baby when they cry, you are showing them they are loved, cared for and safe which will in turn help them to become happier and more settled in the long run
- If you’re tired and need a break then don’t feel guilty if you don’t respond straight away from time to time. They will be ok if you leave them to cry every now and then.
- You are the perfect mother for your baby and you know what to do. Trust your own instincts
- Remember that when older people recount to you what their own babies were like and what really worked for them, they are relying on patchy memory and almost always seeing that time in their life through rose coloured glasses, forgetting the bad parts
- Listen to the subtle changes in your baby’s cries and start to teach yourself what type of cry it is….eg hungry, tired, uncomfortable as this will help. (It will take time but you will start to hear a difference eventually start to hear subtle differences)
- If you have a baby with colic or reflux then that is just really hard and it will keep them awake and unsettled and its best to talk to someone as per the next point below
- If in doubt, call your maternal health nurse, nurse on call, your mother, your friend, anyone. Talk about it, get help, ask for advice. You are never alone.
- Remember that this too, shall pass.
5. Keep your other children in mind
If you already have more than two children you will basically be down with this. You will know that keeping your other children occupied and entertained at certain times of the day will make life easier for you. If you have more than two children already I doubt you are even reading this because you are too busy.
If you have just had your second child you may also feel like you’ve got this and maybe you do.
I thought that I did. I had a very mature 4 year old when my second child was born. She was pretty helpful and very excited to be a big sister. Sounds pretty easy compared to someone who is managing a 20 month old and a newborn. And I am quite sure it was a lot easier in comparison. But her behaviour still took me surprise.
For four years our daughter had been the centre of our world and although she was pretty desperate for a sibling and incredibly excited when he arrived, it all started to change once the reality set in. The reality was that my son was a high maintenance newborn – much more high maintenance than my daughter had ever been. He screamed a lot. He didn’t like sleep. He was unsettled. I had to find my feet with it all and learn new techniques and ways of dealing with him. And life in general had to happen in between all of this with work and kinder runs. I was dog tired all of the time and had zero patience.
At the same time as all of this, my daughter became quite good at being as demanding as possible at prime moments such as right when I was trying to settle my son, just as he was about to fall asleep or better yet, when he was in the midst of screaming.
And then the tantrums, which had long since passed, came back again with my four year old. My reaction initially when this behaviour started? Not ideal. I would yell at her and get super frustrated. I didn’t see any of that behaviour coming.
She was simply reacting to the whole situation. She was obviously feeling left out as all of my attention was taken up by her brother and when it wasn’t, I was so incredibly tired that I had little energy left to be present for her. She was also reacting to the constant sound of crying that could be heard at all times of the day and most of the night which isn’t pleasant for anyone.
So what I found worked was creating some special time for my daughter and myself. Doing some “big girl” things – just the two of us – often. Also, simply communicating with her about everything worked well over time. We would talk about how it made us both feel when he cried all of the time. When he cried at night and woke all of us up, we could talk about how it affected us all. I would explain to her the process it took to get him to sleep and that if this is done as quickly as possible without interruption then we could all have more time together.
It could be as simple as setting up your other children with a movie when you are trying to put your newborn down. Or giving them special jobs. Sometimes that worked with my daughter but more than often it didn’t. It came down to constant communication with her, and being as organised as possible and keeping preparation in mind at all times, which helped my nerves greatly. And this brings us nicely to the next tip.
Simplify your life and put processes in place that will help you feel organised and in control. This can really help your mind set and increase happiness. Feeling happy in control will have a knock on affect on your baby.
Feeling on top of things is underrated. Ever notice how when you are feeling good mentally and emotionally, you are more organised and prepared in general? But when you are not, life becomes a bit scattered and disorganised.
So if you are feeling over whelmed, tired and generally just mentally “fragile” (which is all so very normal when you have had hardly any sleep) then try to set yourself just one small goal to make yourself feel better. Just one. Don’t try to do everything but set one small task that will help you feel more on top of things and then congratulate yourself when you do it. This might be simply having a shower today. Or it might be putting a meal in the slow cooker. Sending an email or responding to a text. Whatever it is, I think you are doing an amazing job! You are feeding and caring for a baby all day and that is no small feat.
Never make your home too quiet.
Newborn babies are used to noise because its noisy in the womb. So don’t be afraid of noise. If you start making their world quiet then they will get used to this very quickly and will require these conditions in order to go to sleep every time. If you want to be able to take your baby out and about with you so you can enjoy your life then it is easier if they are used to noise.
8. Keep your expectations in check
Keep yourself in check about the realities of having a baby. The big one of course is sleep (mainly – lack of).
One thing that many new mothers do is obsess about how much sleep they are getting (or not getting). It is extremely common to think about it constantly and talk about it with everyone you see. I did it with my first child too. I think, in fact that the mothers that are most guilty of this conversation starter, are the ones who are actually getting good bouts of sleep every now and then. The mothers that are barely sleeping realise that its self-destructive to talk about it and in turn get sick of hearing about this topic from other mums (I have been on both sides!!).
I say – stop counting the hours that you have slept or not slept as its not productive. It’s the reality of having a baby. Some nights you’ll sleep better than others and some nights will be hard, end of story. If you’re not talking about sleep but thinking about it then this is just as unhelpful. Self talk is powerful and you are walking around thinking about sleep or lack of sleep all of the time then this is unhealthy.
I think that setting expectations for yourself that there will be sleepless nights makes the whole thing easier to deal with and you can just move on and think about other stuff.
9. Look after you
I think that a lot about child rearing comes back to how we feel about ourselves. Our own experiences of childhood can shape how we parent.
Try to shake off the martyr mentality. A lot of this comes from the generation before ours, where our mothers did everything without complaint. Or did they? I mentioned before about the older generation sometimes looking back through rose coloured glasses. So let’s get real. Back 30 years ago or more from now, there were a lot of unhappy mothers out there. I mean, lets not forget that Doctors used to prescribe Valium to mothers back then just to help them get through the day!
Luckily we live in a different world now where everyone’s expectations have changed. It’s ok to want a night off (and its equally ok to not want a night off I will add too).
Looking after you means being able to actually put your hand up to those around you and tell them you are tired and that you need help or a break. It can be hard for some women to even take that simple step.
Whatever it is that you need to do to feel human, talk to your family about the importance of you doing this. It will make you a happier and more patient parent and in turn will mean that your children are happier and more settled.
If you have trouble looking after yourself then try picturing yourself as your best friend. What would you want for her and what would you advise her to do?
10. Safety is paramount
It’s important to remember that no matter what you do and how you do it, safety is the most important thing. Feeling like you have safety covered will mean that you are likely to be feeling more relaxed yourself about everything.
Safety in the home for you and your baby is probably something that you’ve got a fairly good idea about anyway. I had to put this topic in though, as its one of the most important parts of my job as a newborn photographer.
For example, I have a large beanbag that I pose newborn babies on and even though they are unlikely to roll off or move, I never walk away and leave them there just in case they do. I have a number of safety rules that I follow when it comes to newborn photography in my studio.
Your maternal health nurses will tell you to behave in the same way in your home, for example they advise against leaving your baby on a bed or a change table unattended. It might sound over cautious but the thing is, babies as young as 2 or 3 weeks old have rolled themselves. I have seen it with my own eyes with my own daughter (luckily she rolled on the floor). So, never take safety for granted.
I hope that this article has been helpful to someone out there. Even if you get just one tip from it then that is a great outcome. We are all different and each baby has his or own set of unique needs. So what may have worked for me or from others may not work for you and your baby. Trust yourself to find what is true and what is right for you.
It is most important to remember that you are not alone. Millions of parents have come before you and millions will come after you and we are all just trying to do our best.