Freshly spawned human babies are terrifyingly maladapted. With floppy necks, soft spots on their head, and still-developing organs, they’re critically dependent on mom and dad. “We really should be in the womb at least another 18 months,” says Darcia Narvaez, 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, basically. The best way to do that? Rocking a baby to sleep.
Rocking the child helps the baby accomplish many of the things they can’t do on their own, from stimulating the cilia in an aid to digestion to regulating systems that become naturally dysregulated without that connection, Narvaez says. That makes rocking a baby a natural way to soothe, comfort and help a child fall asleep. And with nature practically begging us to rock our children, it can be demoralizing to struggle at it — even though that’s fairly common.
How To Rock Your Baby
- Pay attention to the baby. Do what calms him or her.
- Don’t hand off the baby to the other partner if you suck. Practice makes perfect.
- Keep the baby close to your body.
- Be steady and consistent with the beat.
- If it isn’t working, try putting on a 60bpm song and moving to the beat.
- Don’t do something that will encourage parental sleep.
“Be patient with yourself!” says baby sleep expert Meg Casano, co-owner of Baby Sleep Science Sleep Resource Center. “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 if your household you’ll want to stick with it and practice a lot!”
While the baby’s other parent may be just trying to help, it’s important for both parents to be able to comfort the child.
The key is to pay attention to the kid: “Follow the baby’s signals. Do what keeps them calm,” Narvaez says. If a certain method calms a child, it’s working. Aside from dangerous movements, there’s no “wrong” way to do it if it’s meeting the end goal. So if the way a parent rocks is “weird” but working, there’s no shame in that technique. Some kids will prefer to be upright, and that could be because they have reflux. Some may prefer to be facing face down with the parent’s arm supporting their stomach. Some like bouncing. Some like swaying. “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.”
Narvaez says she has looked deep into the ancestral heritage and based on activities of mothers late in pregnancy, she believes a rhythm of 60bpm is ideal for movement. If you want something to sway or bob along to, we suggest Akon’s “Smack That.” But, you know, play it quietly. Or find a Spotify playlist of songs that are all about 60bpm.
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 its falling,” she says. Besides, who doesn’t want to snuggle?
Casano says its important to keep safety in mind, too. Parents rocking children may be as tired as the infant due to lack of sleep. “You don’t want to rock your baby to sleep on a couch or armchair and then fall asleep yourself while propped up holding your baby,” she says.
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. “If you usually offer a bottle or pacifier, then sucking will likely be a strong soothing cue for your baby. If you tend to swaddle your baby and start bouncing on the edge of the bed, then this becomes a predictable way to calm your baby. Some parents use music, baby swings, stroller and car seat rides, or white noise type noises to help their babies relax.”
That goes for rocking, too. So if there’s some weird technique of rocking that works realize that’s the dance that will need to be done to calm down the baby. At the park. At that work meeting. At that party.