How To Rock A Baby To Sleep Safely And Easily

Rocking a baby simulates the movement of the womb while keeping the kid close. The key to rocking is to move slow and pay attention.

by Andy Netzel
Originally Published: 
A mother in a rocking chair rocking her baby to sleep as dad kneels in front of them, smiling.

Knowing how to rock a baby to sleep is an essential skill for parents of newborns. If newborns seem high maintenance, it’s because they are, but the reason they demand to be rocked to sleep is rooted in evolution. A human baby’s time in the womb isn’t enough to get them to a place of relative developmental independence once they are born. Most mammals are born ready to be much more independent than humans. But we evolved with relatively small pelvises, and if babies spent any more time in the womb, their heads would be too big to get through the birth canal. So babies are born small enough to emerge from their mothers safely and consequently entirely dependent on others.

“We really should be in the womb at least another 18 months,” says Darcia Narvaez, Ph.D., professor of psychology at the University of Notre Dame. “Compared to other animals, we’re just not ready for birth.” But out we come. So, what is a Homo sapien parent to do? Simulate the feeling of the womb, and the best way to do that is by rocking a baby to sleep.

Rocking a baby to sleep helps them accomplish many things they can’t physically do on their own, like regulating their digestion, Narvaez explains. Rocking is a natural way to soothe, comfort, and help a child fall asleep (and a reason they calm down so quickly in baby bouncers and baby swings). It can be discouraging if you struggle to rock your baby to sleep, especially considering all the benefits. So, here are several tips to keep in mind the next time you’re rocking your baby.

“Be patient with yourself!” says baby sleep expert Meg Casano, co-owner of Baby Sleep Science. “Learning new things takes time — for adults, and also for babies — so try not to let your partner jump in immediately if rocking, at first, is not going the way you hoped. If you want to be the go-to rocker in your household, you’ll want to stick with it and practice a lot!”

The key is to pay attention to the kid: “Follow the baby’s signals. Do what keeps them calm,” Narvaez says. If a certain rocking method calms a child, it’s working. Aside from dangerous movements, there’s no “wrong” way to rock a baby to sleep if it’s meeting the end goal. So if the way a parent rocks is “weird” but effective, there’s no shame in that technique.

Some kids prefer to be upright, which could be because they have reflux. Others may want to be facing the ground with their parent’s arm supporting their stomach, while other babies like bouncing or swaying. Monitoring the baby will let you know what’s working. “I’ve seen people treat the baby like a doll. They’re not paying attention,” she says. “They’re jumping them up and down or moving in a fashion without noticing whether the baby is enjoying it.”

Another key is to keep the child connected to the body when rocking, Narvaez says. “You don’t want to accidentally trigger the Moro reflex, where an infant feels like it’s falling.” Besides, who doesn’t want to snuggle?

It’s important to realize that what you do to calm down your child will have long-term effects. “The things that tend to soothe babies the most are the things that you tend to do the most when they cry,” Casano says. That goes for rocking, too. So if there’s some weird rocking technique that works, realize that’s the dance that will need to be done to calm the baby down. At the park. At that work meeting. At that party.

How to Rock a Baby to Sleep

  • Pay attention to the baby. Do what calms them.
  • Don’t hand the baby off to your partner if you suck. Practice makes perfect.
  • Keep the baby close to your body.
  • Be steady and consistent with the beat.
  • If rocking isn’t working, try putting on a 60 bpm song and moving to the beat.
  • Don’t do something that will encourage parental sleep.
  • Set the mood. Dim the lights and move to a quieter part of the house when rocking the baby.

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