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Are Baby-Soothing Gizmos a Good Parenting Choice?

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Years ago, as a sleep-deprived mother of a colicky baby, I once felt so desperate after trying every imaginable way to soothe my crying infant that I finally placed her in her car seat atop the washing machine, holding her in place with one hand as the washer rumbled below. After a few minutes of soothing vibrations, my baby stopped crying and settled down, much to my relief.

Today’s parents don’t need to rely on such low-tech solutions. (By the way, I don’t endorse that one, either.) They can choose a wide range of automated devices, some with minicomputers utilizing “sense technology” to respond automatically to a fussing baby’s every need. These carriers and bassinettes respond to certain baby noises or movements by rocking, vibrating, or emitting soothing sounds.

What parent of a newborn wouldn’t jump at the possibility of a good night’s sleep? And don’t infants deserve some comfort? Yet, tempting as these gizmos are, as a child psychologist and infant mental health specialist, I feel compelled to remind parents that some things only a human caregiver can do for a baby.

Humans are born to be soothed by other humans

A connection with a loving and attuned caregiver who can meet a baby’s needs for human contact forms the foundation of a child’s social, emotional and physical development. Babies are hardwired with the ability to look into the eyes of a caregiver and to cry, move or fuss when they need soothing, nourishment or help. Parents, too, have instincts developed over millions of years to calm, feed and nurture our young—part of helping them to survive.

Attunement involves reading cues on the face and body of the baby

Yes, sense-technology can detect volume, amplitude and movement, but it cannot tenderly look into the eyes of a baby as she searches for her mommy or daddy, or read her subtle cues about what she needs. In the first few months of a baby’s life, it’s important for parents and caregivers to discover through trial and error what the baby’s cues mean. Is the infant simply fussing momentarily as he settles into a new position, or passes some gas? Or is the baby having difficulty settling, feeling uncomfortable or in pain, and actively using body language—his sounds, facial expressions, and movements—to communicate that he needs assistance?

Caregivers build attachment by tuning in to the baby’s needs

Sure, a machine can generate noise and movement, but that hardly matches a caregiver’s touch, smell, breath, voice and tenderness. We transmit love and affection through the way we hold, gaze at, talk to and interact with our children. From the moment a baby emerges from the uterus, we are constantly helping to shape the child’s brain and body through face-to-face contact: nursing, feeding, holding and skin-to-skin contact.

In fact, the baby’s relationship with her parents and community begins even before birth. During the later stages of pregnancy, the fetus is capable of hearing and remembering the human voices that it hears repeatedly around the mother.

Use technology judiciously, as just one tool in your toolbox.

One of a parent’s prime roles in a newborn’s first months is discovering how best to soothe and calm the baby. This is solely a human task, not one we can outsource to machines—no matter how sophisticated the technology.

I routinely help parents learn to understand their babies’ emergent nervous systems and detect what will help children to feel safe, calm and soothed. If you are looking for a way to decode your child’s sensory preferences, the Profectum Foundation’s  free online parent toolbox features information about how to understand your child’s sensory systems and individual differences.

If you are considering buying products that use technology to soothe a baby, it’s worth considering these precautions:

 Opt for technology only if you find that human contact and soothing aren’t effective, or that the baby seems to need a different type of sensory input than you can offer.

 We’re all wired differently. Be aware that what a baby finds calming and soothing depends on his or her unique constitution and individual differences.

 Go low-tech. Opt for seats/carriers and bassinets that operate manually rather than utilizing sense-technology. When you’re the operator, you (and not the technology) choose the settings that work for your baby. Another low-tech option: play soothing music. (I particularly like the work of children’s music artist Nancy Kopman.)

Don’t leave the baby unattended with the device on. Be present with your voice and body and make an effort to read your baby’s cues to determine how close you should stand. If she’s turning her head away from you, for example, she may just need a break from eye contact—and that’s okay.  

Don’t use any particular calming device too often or become dependent on it. Newborns don’t typically sleep through the night. It’s normal for infants to wake up and feed, then sleep and wake up again. Sometimes a baby will fuss for a few minutes, then settle again on his own. The key is to learn about your baby’s patterns and preferences. In the first few months parents learn how to help their babies feel calm and safe. This is called co-regulation.

 If you are worried about your ability to co-regulate with your baby, don’t hesitate to discuss your concerns with your child’s pediatrician or an infant development specialist.

It’s fine to get occasional help from technology to help soothe your baby. But nothing can replace the sweetness of holding your infant, and soothing her with your voice, the touch of your skin, and your deep connection, as you get to know this little human and fall more deeply in love every day.

I share more about how to understand how to soothe your child in my book Beyond Behaviors.

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