Updated: Jul 20
Why will my baby only sleep in my arms, what am I doing wrong?". A question I am so frequently asked by exhausted first time parents.
The first three months of parenting are often the hardest. A quarter of all babies in this age group are diagnosed as suffering from colic, a diagnosis given when doctors don't know why a baby is so unhappy and parents are unable to stop their tears.
There is hope though, understanding the enormous transition that babies make from 'womb to world', which is often referred to as 'The Fourth Trimester', can prove ground-breaking for sleep deprived new parents. When babies are born, they are not prepared for life outside of the uterus. Understanding this and treating newborns as if they were still 'in utero' for their first three months of life can make life much easier for new families.
Inside a uterus it is incredibly dark, and the baby is in warm water, permanently heated to 37 degrees centigrade, they have never been in air before, let alone much colder temperatures. In addition, all the baby's surroundings are soft, and they are naked, they have never had to wear a nappy or be placed in a firm cot. When the mother is pregnant the baby is in constant physical contact with her, after the birth the baby instantly spends time during the day and night alone. In utero there is constant muffled noise from the mother's heartbeat and digestive system. After birth the baby must get used to lots of different sounds. During pregnancy the baby spends a lot of the time curled tightly upside down, in a position ready for birth, after birth they spend most of their time flat on their back. Due to being surrounded by amniotic fluid, smell is almost impossible but after birth, once they breathe in air, babies are exposed to hundreds of new scents every day. Before birth babies have never experienced hunger or thirst, those sensations are entirely new to them once they are born. The change from uterus to 'earth side' is so huge it's no wonder that they cry!
You can replicate the baby's 'womb world' post birth quite easily with the following tips, which can have a dramatic effect on crying and baby sleep.
Practice contractions, Braxton Hicks, squeeze babies rhythmically at the end of pregnancy and every time a pregnant mother moves the baby moves around inside. Post birth babies love movement, but so often they are put down somewhere completely still. Try swaying from side to side, dancing or going for a walk or bumpy car ride.
Babies love sound, for many a vacuum cleaner or hairdryer is much more calming than a lullaby. White noise can help to calm babies and help them to sleep for longer.
Holding a baby in a more natural position, belly down, such as ‘tiger in the tree’ or ‘lion pose” from baby yoga, is often magical, as it supports baby’s digestive system and can instantly stop babies from crying.
If babies are hungry nothing will calm them. Feeding is always better if it is baby led, not led by a routine in the early weeks, providing baby is healthy. Babies sometimes may want a quick top up rather than a full feed or to suck for comfort. The sucking motion is important as it helps the baby's skull bones to return to their normal position after birth. It also helps to establish milk supply in breastfeeding mothers.
Sometimes a deep, warm bath can really relax and soothe babies. This is even better if the mum or dad goes in the bath with the baby too. Skin to skin contact is a wonderful baby calmer due to the stimulation and release of the happy hormone oxytocin in both parent and baby.
Swaddling a baby can help to replicate the snug feeling they experienced in the womb, although the fabric should not be tight over the baby's hips and parents should stop swaddling by the time the baby can roll for safety reasons.
Carrying babies in a carrier or sling is a great way to soothe and calm babies. Research has shown that babies who are carried regularly cry significantly less than those who are not. Babywearing also means they have your hands free, enabling parents to do things.
Empathising with the experience of a newborn baby can give great insight into ways to help them. Most of the methods that are advocated in the fourth trimester are ones that parents will often do instinctively. However, many parents are warned not to 'spoil' their baby or 'make a rod for their own back' by holding them too much. The simple fact is that it is impossible to spoil a baby or hold them too much! If your baby settles in your arms and you are happy to have them then hold them as long as you want, and remember baby’s grow up!