Common Features and Principles of Soothing

Author: Ronald G. Barr, MDCM, FRCP(C)

At the outset, it may be worth getting our expectations right about what we should expect from soothing. One of the things that caregivers often tell themselves is, “If only I do this soothing right, I should be able to comfort my baby.” Of course, if you try all kinds of ways to soothe your baby and your baby does not become quiet and happy, the next logical thought is, “I must not be doing it right because I can’t seem to comfort my baby.” “It must be my fault.”

While such thinking is completely understandable, it is not correct. And the main reason it is not correct has to do with the nature of crying in babies in the first weeks and months of life. As is described in more detail in the section on crying, some of the crying that all infants do is unsoothable crying, meaning that no matter what you try to calm your crying infant, the crying will continue. So, if you do everything right and your baby continues to cry, that is still OK. It does not mean that your baby is sick, ill or abnormal. Nor does it mean you are not comforting your baby correctly, rather, your baby is just going through an unsoothable crying bout.

"If you do everything right and your baby continues to cry, that is still OK.
It does not mean that your baby is sick, ill or abnormal."

Of course, in quieter moments you might think to yourself, “How can that be? Why can’t I just find the right way to soothe my baby?” Well, here is a way to think about answering that question. It may seem obvious, but it is important to say it just the same: babies are not machines. They do not have a “switch” that turns them on or off (like a car or a light). To say they are not like a machine is to say that they are not always predictable. There is no pathway that always takes a baby from crying to being awake, alert and smiling (or sleeping). Similarly, there is no pathway that always takes a baby from alert and awake to crying. In machines, there is always a pathway. You can always put out a light by flipping a switch. If you keep in mind that your baby is not a machine, and not like a machine, you will not be so disappointed or surprised if your baby does not always calm down when you try to comfort him or her.

Let me introduce the first important rule concerning soothing infants—we might call it the first principle of soothing. Some things work some of the time, but nothing works all of the time. This is very understandable when we remember that infants are not like machines; they are not predictable, and they do not have an “on-off” switch for crying or for soothing.

OK, now that we have good starting assumptions about your baby, let’s consider some of the common features of soothing methods. It turns out that there have been quite a few studies on this topic. Soothing, after all, has been around for a long time; is present in all cultures; and has a rich cultural representation in stories and songs.

What this interest in soothing has shown us is that there are some very general principles that apply to virtually all soothing behaviors that caregivers do. Here are some of the most common:

What we have been describing above are common features of lots of behaviors that mothers and caregivers do that can comfort or help quiet their infant. Often, these are in response to an already crying baby. That is completely appropriate. However, such soothing behaviors do not need to be limited to responses to a crying baby. In fact, they are also effective ways to prevent babies from becoming crying babies if they are done when the baby is not crying. And this is the second important principle about keeping babies calm: namely, that soothing can work preventively if the soothing activities are applied when the infant is not crying rather than just in response to crying.

Here is an example from some studies on calming infants. In one study, gentle rocking of quiet newborns in a bassinet or in a caregiver’s arms was shown to be effective in delaying or reducing crying that came later. In another study, half of the parents of some babies were asked to increase the amount of carrying and holding they did, and the other half just did whatever amount of carrying and holding was typical for them. In those parents who were asked to increase their carrying and holding, their babies cried and fussed less than the babies of parents who just did the usual amount of carrying. That was interesting enough and was expected. What was more interesting, however, was the fact that both groups did a similar amount of carrying and holding in response to crying, so it wasn’t the “responsive” carrying that made the difference. The increased carrying that made the difference was the carrying that the parents did when the baby was not crying. The parents who did more carrying did it when the baby was not crying, and it was that carrying that reduced the crying in their infants.

"In those parents who were asked to increase their carrying and holding, their babies cried
and fussed less than the babies of parents who just did the usual amount of carrying." 

When you look at the way babies are soothed in other countries and cultures around the world, the usefulness of doing all of these behaviors that keep babies calm, even when they are not crying, makes a lot of sense. In North America, babies are not typically carried around by their parents all or most of the time. When they cry, they are often picked up and cuddled. When that happens, all of the common features of soothing that we have been talking about help to calm and quiet the baby. These soothing efforts are all in response to crying that has already started. In other countries and in other cultures where babies are carried essentially all of the time, these same common features of soothing that we have been describing (position change, closeness, movement, and so on) are effectively used all of the time to keep the baby calm and happy, not just in response to crying. Consequently, parents in these cultures are likely to be contributing to soothing “in advance,” so to speak, by maintaining a quiet, awake state that is less likely to move to a baby that is crying.

In summary, soothing behaviors are universal things that all parents and caregivers use to calm and comfort their babies. Years of research have confirmed that there are a few common features to all soothing behaviors. These soothing behaviors can be used in response to crying infants, or they can also be used when the baby is not crying to help keep them calm, and make them less likely to cry later.

It is also helpful to remember what we have called the first and second principles of soothing:

  1. Some soothing behaviors work some of the time, but nothing works all of the time;
  2. Soothing can work preventively if the soothing activities are applied when the infant is not crying rather than just in response to crying.