Understanding how to rock a baby to sleep requires knowing why rocking works in the first place. It’s all linked to the fact that 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. That’s not the case for most mammals. The problem is that if babies spent any more time in the womb, their heads would be too big to get through the birth canal.
“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 helps a baby accomplish many of the things they can’t physically do on their own, like regulate the process for digestion Narvaez explains. 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.
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. “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 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.”
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.” 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 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.
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