Attempting to settle a newborn baby in the postpartum period can leave many parents feeling concerned, helpless and upset. After all, the fourth trimester is a time where your baby is adapting to the outside world. It feels alien to them, it feels overwhelming, and their brain is developing hugely at this stage.
They have been in an environment which has been safe, at the same constant temperature, fed through a placenta and cord and rocked to sleep listening to its mothers heart beat and bowel sounds. Midwife and Maternity Expert, Angela from The Eco Midwife, shares her 8 top tips on how to settle a newborn in the first few weeks after being born.
Why babies feel unsettled in the postpartum period
After birth, babies suddenly feel the cold, they understand touch (particularly if hands are cold), they have unfamiliar smells and sounds, lights which they have never experienced before and they have primal brains as the frontal cortex and other areas of their brain have not yet developed. This is why their brains are immature, and they cry because they experience sensations which make them feel unhappy to have their needs met by their caregivers. These feelings include:
• Discomfort such as trapped wind, colic, soiled or wet nappies
• Fear of the outside world.
If you think back to our primal brains in our caveman days, it was okay to sleep more in the day because predators largely weren’t about. Mum and dad could go out and hunt or sleep. But at night the sabre tooth tiger would have eaten you up if you weren’t close to your parents.
Babies naturally feed and wake more at night for these primal reasons and regular waking suggested as a safety mechanism for babies as well as a feeding reason (as oxytocin and milk production is highest in the early hours, usually between 2 and 4am) 1. Safe sleeping in a cot or safe co sleeping by the lullaby Trust guidelines is recommended.
Tips to settle your newborn:
Think safety and security
One of the most common things we do as adults is to find comfort in touch: whether it’s holding someone’s hand or cuddling them. Babies cannot be spoilt and research has shown that the more babies are held, the more they are cuddled, and the more they have skin to skin then higher amount of oxytocin are produced in their bodies. Oxytocin builds neural pathways and connections in baby’s brains – think of it as fertiliser for your garden, this is fertiliser for your babies brain development.
Daily continued skin to skin has been shown to reduce salivary cortisol levels in mothers at one month old and have lower rates of postpartum depression symptoms in mothers at one week and one month old. Skin to skin can be undertaken by either parent too which is great for bonding and attachment, particularly for the non birthing parent. When a baby is skin to skin against a parents chest they can feel safe, warm, they hear your heart beat and can smell you and your pheromones. Essentially it reduces the cortisol levels in their body because they know their parent is responding to them and they don’t need to be in a flight or fight response because their parent will protect them.
Mimic the womb in different ways
This can include white noise, loud ticking clocks (think 60 seconds, and the average heart rate is 60-80 beats per minute). Your baby has been used to hearing noises in your body 24/7, and quiet spaces can sometimes be more likely for babies to wake than spaces with background noise. There are some great white noise apps you can download free on phones and tablets, or various toys available.
Warmth and optimum temperature is important for babies
Skin to skin regulates temperature, but for babies it’s important to get the temperature right for comfort. As a general rule of thumb, babies tend to need one more layer than what we have as adults. For example if you go to sleep in pj’s and a duvet, then usually a baby would need a vest, a baby grow and a blanket. Remember only cellular or cotton is recommended and every time you fold a blanket it is an additional layer. Once again follow the lullaby trust safe sleeping advice, monitor your room temperature and there is a reel on my IG account about how to check a baby’s temperature to know how many layers to apply or remove.
If you are putting a baby in a cot or moses basket and the mattress is cold then you can consider a wheat bag to warm it up before. This must be removed and not left in the cot when a baby is sleeping, and the temperature of the mattress must be felt first to make sure it is not too hot. Overheating can be related to sudden infant death syndrome so ensuring safety if you choose to try this is key.
Swaddling reduces the chance of the baby ‘startling’ when being put into a cot or moses basket and can help the baby feel safe and secure, almost like it is being cuddled. There are ways to swaddle safely to protect hop development and reduce overheating by using thin cellular or cotton blankets. There is a video on my IG for safe swaddling.
Cover the mattress in something you have been wearing that day. Your baby will then have the smell of you in the cot or moses basket which may help to settle them in the cot.
Two Handed settling technique
The two handed settling technique is a great way of gradually settling a baby. It takes a while, doesn’t always work, but can be a great option to try. It’s one we use as nurses and midwives in units with sleep deprived parents to help their babies sleep in cots. You can use this with next to me cots, or during safe co sleeping practice too. The two handed settling technique is on my IG reels, go check it out.
Baby wearing using slings or appropriately sized baby carriers
Baby wearing is a brilliant way of being able to cook, eat, get out and about and even complete housework. Baby wearing in slings provide babies with comfort and safety and provide parents with the opportunity to be able to do the things they need to do. Baby wearing can again aid parents in bonding and attachment, in keeping babies upright after feeds which can aid with keeping milk down and reducing reflux, and can reduce crying time because babies are against their caregivers, cuddled.
Consider baby massage before bedtime
Baby massage has many benefits including reducing colic, improving or initiating sleep, being part of bedtime routines, aiding circulation and digestion.
There are so many groups and classes for baby massage both online and face to face. Many massage teachers will recommend waiting until after the 6 week check to start, partly because of checking health for insurance cover, but also because the periods where babies are awake and alert enough to perform massage in the first six weeks are really short.
Babies skin is also really delicate and baby massage involves a massage medium. The general recommendation is to avoid anything bar water in the first week-month of life as it can alter the skin microbiome (good bacteria) and increase the chance of rashes and reactions. It is also really important to feed on demand in the newborn period, and massage should not interfere with this. However checking with a midwife or GP first can mean certain massage techniques can be used prior to the 6 weeks, and any baby with any underlying health conditions needs their parents to have a discussion with their own doctors first to know whether it is safe to undertake.
Finally it’s really important that you have support around you. The fourth trimester can be overwhelming, amazing, emotional and sleep deprivation and the transition to parenthood is tough. Parents with a good solid support network around them are more likely to have an easier transition to parenthood, and therefore improved mental wellbeing. If at any stage you are struggling, ask your midwife or health visitors for more tips and support in settling your newborn.
For further advice, check out our other content on sleep.