How to Effectively Use the 5 S's to Soothe a Fussy Baby
If you’ve ever spent hours trying to calm a crying newborn, you may be wondering if there are any magical baby-soothing methods you haven’t heard of. As a matter of fact, such a magic method actually does exist, and it’s amazingly effective. Known as the 5 S’s for soothing babies, it’s a combination of five centuries-old techniques mothers have used to calm fussy newborns arranged into a simple tautogram: swaddle, side or stomach position, shush, swing, and suck.
How Were the 5 S’s for Babies Developed?
After spending years as a pediatrician on the child abuse team at UCLA Hospital, Dr. Harvey Karp became curious about why so much was still unknown about soothing colic in newborns. During his research, he discovered that mothers in the !Kung San tribe of the Kalahari Desert had the ability to instantly calm their infants. How? They held their babies almost constantly, feeding, rocking, and bouncing them. In other words, they imitate the womb experience for several months. This led him to two conclusions:
- Human newborns are born before they’re ready, resulting in the need for far more care and attention than most other newborn mammals require. Dr. Karp explains that humans gestate for only nine months due to their large brain size. Longer gestation would result in a baby being too large to fit through the birth canal. In reality, it takes about 12 weeks for babies to adjust to life on the outside.
- He also suggests that much of a newborn’s fussy, needy behavior is a result of their inability to self-soothe along with feelings of disorientation outside the womb. Feeding, rocking, swaddling, and even shushing a newborn are soothing because they mimic the soft, rhythmic sensations they experienced in utero. This explains the significant changes your infant goes through in a fairly short period – from a sleepy, fretful infant to a cooing, smiling three-month-old baby. This so-called fourth trimester is a stage of major physiological and emotional development for your little one.
Dr. Karp realized that parents around the world could use these soothing techniques and be just as successful as the !Kung San at calming their own babies. He put these ideas together in his bestselling book, The Happiest Baby on the Block.
Why Should You Use the 5 S’s for Soothing a Baby?
Crying takes a toll on parents and little ones. Often, infants will become increasingly fussy as evening approaches and may continue to be upset for hours. This leaves many parents feeling worried, frustrated, and exhausted, creating a tremendous amount of family stress, lowering a parent’s patience threshold, and increasing the odds of postpartum depression. Overly tired parents also may drift off with an infant in an unsafe place, increasing the baby’s risk for suffocation and SIDS.
What Are the 5 S’s for Babies?
Parents across the globe have developed various interpretations of the soothing womb-like sensations Dr. Harvey calls the 5 S’s: Swaddle, Side-Stomach Position, Shush, Swing, and Suck. Let’s take a closer look at each of the 5 S’s, how they work, and how to use them to calm and comfort your newborn.
Swaddling refers to a way of snuggly wrapping your baby like a tiny burrito with their arms snug and straight at their sides while leaving their hips loose and flexed. Anecdotal accounts and some older research indicate that swaddled infants sleep longer and better than unswaddled babies. This is likely because it reminds them of the safety and security of the womb. Swaddling also helps minimize the Moro reflex, an instinctive startling or arm flailing at sudden sounds, thus reducing the chance they’ll themselves up.
To swaddle your newborn, place a soft, lightweight blanket (47” x 47” works well) on your bed and orient it like a diamond with a point at the top. Fold the top point down to about the center of the blanket. Lay your infant face up on the blanket so that the edge of the top fold is just below their neck. Pull one side of the blanket over them and tuck it under their arm. Lift up the bottom point and tuck it in. Then fold over the other side and tuck the end into the fabric wrapped around your infant’s back.
Be sure to leave a couple of fingers of space between the swaddling fabric and your baby’s chest for wiggle room. Avoid wrapping your baby too tightly around the hips and legs as this can lead to hip development issues. In addition, be sure your baby doesn’t have too many warm layers under the swaddle. You can discontinue swaddling once your little one can roll onto their tummy.
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Side or stomach position (holding only)
Studies indicate that infants sleep longer and are less reactive to noise when sleeping on their tummies. The major problem with that? It also puts them at a dramatically increased risk for sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS). Holding babies in this position for a little while, however, can help them calm down. According to Dr. Karp, carrying a baby in the supine position (lying over your shoulder or across your forearm with your hand supporting their head) triggers an innate calming instinct. Once your baby has calmed down, lay them on their back for sleep.
Believe it or not, infants actually need noise to sleep. They constantly heard lots of muffled sounds inside the womb, like their mother’s food digesting, blood pumping, and breathing, along with the steady murmur of outside noises. Many parents instinctively make a loud shhh sound to calm their babies that closely resembles the combination of sounds an infant is used to. White noise is another way to recreate that experience. This is why running a loud, rumbly vacuum cleaner soothes some colicky babies.
For this technique to be most effective, shush loud and long. Try to match your shushing volume to your baby’s cry. You can even try putting your mouth close to your infant’s ear so that they hear the sound directly. As they start to calm down, you can begin lowering the shushing volume.
Parents and caregivers around the world have rocked and swung their babies a thousand miles in an effort to soothe them to sleep. That’s because they know that movement is an effective way to calm a crying infant. Studies in both animals and humans showed that crying babies who are carried around by their mothers instantly stop all voluntary movements and crying.
To swing your baby effectively, begin by ensuring their neck and head are well-supported. Rock back and forth about an inch and add a little bounce. A fussy baby may need a faster pace than one who’s already calm. Keep your movements small and controlled. Never, ever shake your baby.
Sucking is a natural instinct for babies, even as early as 14 weeks gestation. Research has demonstrated that infants enjoy and are soothed by non-nutritive sucking. Nursing or bottle-feeding will do the trick, but for a bit more flexibility, consider introducing a pacifier. Bear in mind, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) typically recommends waiting to offer a pacifier until a regular nursing routine is well established (around 3 or 4 weeks of age).
Babies love the Natursutten Natural Rubber Pacifier. One reason may be the soft rubber, which has a more natural feel than the artificial silicone used in mass-produced pacifiers. You’ll understand at first touch.
The Bottom Line
Persistent crying is frustrating and stressful for the entire family. Try implementing these five steps and see what works best for your baby. You can even add your own spin to them. If you’re worried that your baby’s crying isn’t due to normal irritability, discuss your concerns with your pediatrician.
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