What is the best method to help crying infants fall asleep?
The difficulty in getting a young infant to sleep, and the resulting parental trauma, is universally known. According to this small study, the best approach to a crying infant seems to be walking while holding the baby for 5 minutes followed by another 5 to 8 minutes of sitting and holding the baby before placing the baby in a bed. Just sitting with a crying baby did not calm them, and you can forget about putting a crying baby directly into a bed. The authors cite a transport (calming) response common in mammal species in which infants are born helpless — think of a docile kitten carried by the nape by its mother — as an explanation. 4
Cross-over trial (randomized)
These investigators in Italy and Japan recruited 21 healthy infants between 2 weeks and 7.2 months of age (mean = 3.3 months) and conducted a total of 32 sessions. The infants were not specifically chosen for their sleep patterns; that is, they weren’t babies with specific sleep issues. Either in the participants’ home or in a laboratory, the interventions began 1 hour to 2 hours after the last feeding. Each mother performed a random series of 4 approaches to help infants sleep: (1) the mother holding the baby and walking; (2) the mother holding the infant while sitting; (3) laying the infant in a bassinet, crib (cot), or another flat motionless surface; and (4) rocking the infant back and forth or side to side in a stroller or mobile crib. Each approach was set to last either 30 seconds or 5 minutes. At the end of each approach, infants were categorized as asleep/drowsy, calm/fussy, or hard crying. The best approach to achieving sleep in a crying baby was a combination of 5 minutes of walking while holding the baby upright, followed by 5 to 8 minutes of sitting with the baby upright before placing the infant in a bed. Walking and holding, followed either by sitting with the baby or placing the baby in bed also worked for infants who were alert at the start. This study is limited by the narrow age range of the infants and the low number of participants.
Allen F. Shaughnessy, PharmD, MMedEd
Professor of Family Medicine