Calming a Crying Baby (A Music Therapist's Method)

We had some weekend visitors stay at our house not too long ago and they brought their sweet 18-month old. He was sick, missed a nap and was overstimulated after a long day in the sun. Predictably, he had a rough time calming down for a nap. Before long, it escalated to him being completely inconsolable. 


When his parents were getting increasingly exhausted, I peeked my head in the room and asked if I could give them a break and take a shot. Let me preface this by saying that, 1. Putting crying kids to sleep was a big part of my job for many years (as a music therapist in a Children's Hospital), and 2. In this case, it could have been really good luck.

Within minutes, he was fast asleep. The method I used is something I've used time and time again with music therapy clients and my own daughter. As I explained what I did to his dad, it occurred to me that there are some tips in there that could be useful to parents.

Here's my 4-step process:

1. Check the Environment

You want the sensory environment to be as controlled as possible. A cool room with the curtains drawn, limited background noise (none or white noise, if you can), low or no light, no ceiling fans (they can be a sensory disaster for some kids), and carefully monitored music (see #3). 

2. Check the Child

How are they dressed? Are they too hot, too cold... itchy? Is there something on their clothing that could be bothering them (the tag, for example)? This is also a good time to rule out fevers, rashes, hunger, etc.

3. Select the Right Music

If a child is crying or inconsolable, music that is too quiet WILL NOT WORK (more info on that here). The goal is to get the child's brain to "grab" onto the music and pay attention. Quiet music can be under-stimulating, so shoot for medium tempo music that has lyrics (the brain can't help but pay attention to lyrics), multiple instruments, harmonies, etc. You're essentially looking for something interesting enough to grab their attention but mellow enough to keep them from getting overstimulated. Something like THIS is a good starting point. 

4. What's your role? 

When the sensory environment is set, your job is to keep calm and rock the child confidently (meaning: hold and rock them lovingly yet securely/firmly). Rock them to the tempo of the music, allowing for big movements (think lunges) if the child seems to be responding to that. When you move to the beat of the music, you're physically drawing their attention to the music and that movement reinforces it and draws their attention in. You can increase the overall impact of the music because you're involving multiple sensory systems.  

As the child calms, be sure to calm with them. Reduce your movement, reduce the volume and stimulation level of the music (check out this lullaby playlist), and together, get calmer and calmer until they're no longer crying. Most of the time, you can continue until they're asleep. I like to take lots of deep breaths (exaggerating the physical movement so the child feels it, too) and that often prompts even very young babies to breathe or sigh.


Music therapists have a few more complex tricks up their sleeves (research shows us that live music is more effective than recorded music, for example), but this general process should help most kids. For kids with bigger sensory needs, a board certified music therapist can be a great resource. (Find one here.)

Using this 4-step process, many kids calm within minutes. If it isn't working relatively quickly, something is probably off. The music is wrong, the movement is wrong, the environment is off or perhaps, the child is in pain. Keep experimenting and by doing so, you'll gather more and more information about your child based on what they respond to and what they don't. 

Did you try it? Let me know!



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