How to Calm your Cranky Newborn

Your baby is finally here! Yay! Except what is this incessant CRYING that just won’t quit?!

Plain and simple, babies are confusing. They only have one way to communicate any discomfort — crying. And the crying could mean they’re hungry, tired, wet/dirty, overstimulated, bored, or literally anything, because that’s all Baby knows how to say! So what’s a new parent to do?

It can be tricky to figure out how to calm the cries of a cranky newborn! Try this SCRAP method to see your baby go from crying to calm.

In Harvey Karp’s popular book, The Happiest Baby on the Block, he recommends implementing a “fourth trimester,” where Baby receives similar conditions that he had inside the womb. The womb is what is familiar to your little one; it worked quite nicely for nine months, and the outside world is kind of a rude awakening. By creating an environment similar to the womb, you have a much better chance of calming your crying baby.

Karp explains how to create a womb-like experience for baby using 5 S’s: Swaddle, Side/Stomach, Shhh, Swinging, and Suck. However, I always find it difficult to remember 5 different “S” words, so I came up with a more varied acronym instead: SCRAP. It’s not the most applicable acronym (I couldn’t make “RELAX” or “PEACE” work, unfortunately), but hopefully you’ll find it a little easier to remember. SCRAP stands for Swaddle, Comfy Position, Rhythmic Movement, Add White Noise, and Pacifier.


Swaddle

For the first 3-4 months of life, Baby has a strong Moro reflex. This reflex basically makes Baby feel like he is falling, so he’ll flail his arms at the sound of a loud noise or in response to a surprise movement or a dream. Whether we’re preparing Baby for sleep or just trying to calm him while he’s awake, we want to deaden the startling effect of this reflex. The way to do this is by swaddling Baby.

I hear a lot of parents say that their baby doesn’t like the swaddle. In my experience, Baby doesn’t like the swaddle for one of two reasons: 1. The swaddle isn’t being done correctly. It may seem strange, but Baby actually wants that swaddle to be pretty darn tight around his arms. He’s used to the confinement of a belly, so if you only loosely wrap baby up, it won’t have the calming effect that a tight swaddle will have. 2. The swaddle is just the first step in the calming process. Many babies cry throughout the swaddling process, but as you follow the remaining parts of the SCRAP method, the combination of factors will calm Baby.

If you’re not sure how to correctly swaddle, check out this YouTube video. It has tutorials for three different swaddling options. Personally, I like the second option; it’s the most straightforward, and it’s what I used with my own baby! There are also many different swaddling blankets (with velcro or zippers) on the market now that are great options. Whatever option you use, make sure to keep the blanket away from Baby’s face, tight around his arms, and a bit looser around his hips and legs.

Comfy Position

One huge trigger for that Moro reflex I was just mentioning is when Baby lays on his back. Babies are actually much more comfortable on their sides or stomachs. Now we lay Baby on his back for sleep because it’s safer, but when we’re just working on getting Baby to calm down and relax, we can hold him on his side or stomach to help him get there.


Rhythmic Movement

In the womb, Baby was constantly being bounced and jiggled by Mama’s ordinary movements. Now that Baby is out of the womb, he still enjoys being rocked, bounced, and swung or swayed. These movements are familiar, and therefore calming.


Add White Noise

When Baby was in the womb, he could hear the blood rush through Mama’s veins. We can recreate that noise with a white noise machine, running shower water, a vacuum, a hair dryer, or by simply “shhh"-ing near Baby’s ear. Although the sound might seem annoying to our adult ears, it is once again familiar to Baby, so he finds it quite calming!


Pacifier

Or binky, or finger, or toy — whatever Baby might like to suck on. Especially during the newborn stage, sucking turns on Baby’s calming reflex. So if we can encourage Baby to start sucking, we’ll be able to get that little one calmed down quite quickly. If Baby is truly hungry, he won’t be satisfied by anything other than the milk he seeks, but if he’s fussy for another reason, a pacifier or finger (yours or his own!) may be just what he needs to calm down.


Using just a few pieces of the puzzle may help soothe Baby, but if it doesn’t, make sure you’re combining all the pieces. Taking these steps can work to calm Baby in preparation for sleep, or even just to calm Baby while he’s awake. Remember that newborns can tolerate very little awake time between naps, so make sure to implement these relaxing tools before Baby becomes overtired, as overtired babies are much more difficult to calm.

Also keep in mind that the goal is not to get Baby to actually fall asleep with these steps (though some babies might) — they’re just to get him nice and relaxed so he’s more able to fall asleep. When I was a new mom, I used SCRAP to try to get Ada to fall asleep completely; what this looked like was 5-20 minutes of rapid swinging. If I stopped too soon, she’d re-awaken and I’d have to start all over. It more or less worked, but it was exhausting! Instead, you can just bounce or rock Baby for a few minutes until he’s more relaxed. At that point, you can lay him down in his crib/bassinet (still swaddled, with white noise and a pacifier) so he can start to practice falling asleep independently.

If he fusses, first give him a moment to see if he’ll resettle on his own — show him you believe he’s capable by giving him some time, even just 20 or 30 seconds. Then, if he’s still fussing, you can try any of the following things, making sure to wait 20, 30, or even 60 seconds (if you can!) before introducing a new help. Remember, the goal is for Baby to learn some self-soothing skills, and he can’t learn to do anything himself if we immediately rush in and give him all our soothing tools at once.

  • Place your hand on his chest; this will give him a little bit of that feeling of closeness to you.

  • Replace or offer his pacifier if it has fallen out.

  • Jiggle Baby’s body a bit (while he is still lying down). If he’s in some sort of a cradle, you can try rocking the cradle.

  • Pick Baby up and try the SCRAP method. Once Baby is calm again, lay him back down.

If you try all these things and Baby is still having difficulties settling, it may be time for another feed.

Lastly, I want to remind you that when Baby is just a newborn, we’re simply practicing independent soothing skills. It’s okay if he needs more interference from you to calm down or get to sleep; it’s okay if you want to hold him while he sleeps; it’s okay to baby-wear during naps. Just give him the opportunity to practice some self-soothing every day, even if it’s just for one or two of his naps, and you’ll find that you have a baby who sleeps through the night and takes great naps sooner than you might have thought possible! By teaching self-soothing skills, you’re laying the foundation for good sleep.