Sitting in a chair with his wailing baby, a dad tries everything to soothe his little one. Running out of ideas, he gets up from his seat, and, with that, the infant’s sobs turn into whimpers, then silence. The new father hasn’t gotten randomly lucky for once, either — a study has uncovered why babies seem to stop crying when they’re held by someone who’s standing up.
For many parents, it’s a pain that their babies won’t calm down while they’re held by someone who’s sitting down. Standing up and pacing back and forth to soothe an infant might be the last thing that a tired mom or dad wants to do — but little ones do tend to respond to this method more than the others.
And, according to a study, it’s not just a coincidence — there’s an evolutionary reason why babies like to be carried this way. Perhaps, as a parent, you’ve wondered why your little ones have such a strong reaction to you standing up and walking with them. And once you understand why they like it so much, you should be even more inclined to hop to your feet the next time they start to cry.
A wailing infant is a sound that no parent can ignore, but one that sometimes confounds them. Babies cry for a multitude of reasons, and it’s up to their moms or dads to figure out the reason they have started sobbing. Of course, sometimes the cause of an infant’s tears is easier to deduce than others.
Often, parents have physical evidence as to why their babies have started to whimper. A dirty diaper — especially one with stool — can irritate an infant’s sensitive skin. Without a quick clean-up, the little one will feel a burning, painful sensation, which can push them to cry out for a change.
However, that’s not the most common reason why little ones burst into tears. A parent’s best bet is to check first if their baby is hungry, as that’s always a likely cause for crying. If that’s what’s bugging an infant, they’ll be instantly soothed by a feeding — even grown-ups can relate to this feeling.
And, after they eat, babies tend to remain content — until they start feeling other uncomfortable sensations and sentiments, of course. The second-most common cause for crying is because a baby needs sleep. And, just like when they’re hungry, babies need help to stop crying when they’re tired.
Firstly, infants need to be swaddled in a blanket and placed on their backs so that they can sleep. They need their parents’ help to reach this comfortable position when it’s time to snooze. And, even if they continue to fuss and snivel for a little bit, most babies will doze off on their own.
Tiredness and hunger are the cause of most of a baby’s tears. But there are other reasons why a little one might start to bawl. For one thing, they might feel discomfort after they drink too much milk. A bloated tummy can cause a baby to cry until their overstuffed feeling starts to dissipate.
On that note, sometimes what a breastfeeding mom eats can affect her baby’s belly, too. Specifically, if she drinks too much caffeine, her baby might cry more often than normal. The little one will have trouble falling asleep, too — which will only make an uncomfortable baby cry even more.
A baby might also cry out if they dislike their outfit — and not for aesthetic reasons. Instead, they wail when they get either too cold or too hot in their clothes. A get-up that feels too tight will also cause an infant to lose their cool. But swapping a baby’s outfit is an easy fix for parents trying to soothe their sobbing child.
What’s not as easy to rectify are the two other main causes of crying. Pain is one of them — everything from diaper rash to mouth ulcers or earaches can cause babies to bawl. Not only that, but when they stop crying, these babies often remain unhappy. When this happens, parents should take their kiddos to the doctor as soon as possible for a proper diagnosis.
And, in the early months of a baby’s life, they may experience colic, which causes them to cry for hours at a time. Unlike little ones who cry because of pain, those with colic will, eventually, revert to being happy. However, when they do cry, it’s for extended periods — which can set their parents’ nerves on edge.
There are a few unproven myths as to why babies cry, too. For one thing, some parents might put it down to gas. It makes sense to consider wind as a cause for tears, since bloating and overeating can make little ones uncomfortable. However, gas doesn’t cause any pain — it is just swallowed air.
Indeed, plenty of parents will figure this out on their own. Most babies will continue crying even after they’re successfully burped, thus releasing the pent-up gas inside their tummies. If their tears keep rolling, though, then the gas was never the cause of their outburst. The same goes for spitting up, which infants will often do.
Half of babies will spit up after eating, and it’s totally normal — their digestive systems don’t develop right away. They tend to stop regurgitating their meals when they start eating solid foods, but, until then, they’ll continue doing so if they overeat or swallow too much air. Regardless of the reasons why, experts have found no link between this tendency and crying.
No matter the reason why a baby cries, though, parents have to come up with ways to get them to calm down. And many innovative moms and dads have clever methods for soothing their little ones. Videos have gone viral that show babies falling asleep to David Bowie songs or ceasing from blubbering as soon as they see themselves in the mirror.
But one tried-and-true method for parents to calm down their crying infants is to hold them, stand up and, sometimes, walk around. And, as this method has worked for so many that they have wondered why it’s so effective. Some have even come up with plausible theories to explain it.
In a forum on the question-and-answer website Quora, commenters weighed in with their ideas for why holding babies while standing worked so well. One person wrote, “Babies like movement — all mothers know this. You get so used to keeping things moving all the time, that one day […] you realize that you are standing in the supermarket, gently moving the shopping trolley the whole time, even with no small child in it!”
The same commenter suggested that babies liked to look at new things, which was why they liked to move around. They advised, “Just keep the wallpaper moving, and keep providing new views of things, and all will be quiet and peaceful.” But that wasn’t the only idea shared on this online comment board.
Another commenter suggested that babies were used to movement pre-birth and wanted that sensation to continue into real-world life. They wrote, “When babies are in the womb, they experience a great deal of swaying motion. Many babies before birth slept during the day when their mothers [were] moving around and were active at night when their mothers settled down.”
Obviously, this environment disappears with birth. The commenter continued, “After being used to the swaying motion of being inside, they are suddenly thrust into a world that is strangely still. As a result, many babies seek out movement. Most people who stand do not just stay still; instead, they sway or walk, which is really what the babies prefer.”
The commenter said that their theory even explained particular baby products on the market — ones meant to soothe babies for their parents. They wrote, “This is the same reason for the large market for swings and other motion devices for young babies.” But not all parents agreed, and one had a much simpler idea as to why babies liked to be held by someone standing up.
This commenter, a father-of-three, believed that “most babies are awkward little buggers who refuse to cooperate with anything if they possibly can.” He knew this theory had holes, of course. He added, “This isn’t always true […] but the sooner you accept it the sooner you will realize that whatever you do might work, or might not in any given circumstance.”
The commenter concluded his post with a look to the future — eventually, all babies grow up, and the struggle to stop them from crying would become a distant memory. He advised, “Whatever your child is doing right now, they will be doing something different in a few weeks’ time. Accept it, and love it, and even treasure it, because it will soon be gone forever.”
Even with that wisdom in mind, you still might want to understand why standing up is such an effective method for calming a crying baby. In spite of all of the above theories — and there’s many more out there — experts have finally found the reason that this trick always seems to work.
In May 2013 a team of experts published their findings in an issue of the scientific journal Current Biology. To understand why babies behave this way, they attached electrocardiograms to a dozen infants to track their heart rates. Then, they asked their mothers to put their babies into cribs, cradle them while seated or hold them while walking around for a half-minute.
The results only confirmed what parents have long known about their babies — they are happiest and calmest while in the arms of someone standing up. The study authors wrote, “Heart rate variability analyses revealed that…[heart rate decrease] was significantly higher during carrying than during holding. These data suggest that infants were more relaxed during carrying than during holding, not only behaviorally but also physiologically.”
The experts found the same to be true of mice and their pups. Of course, rodents can’t pick up their babies like humans can, but they do lift them by the napes of their necks. Researchers also noted how hard this task would be if the mice — or human — babies wiggled or went limp.
So, because both mice and babies have evolved to calm down when carried, it provided experts with a clue as to why this phenomenon exists. Parents can easily pick up and hold on to a baby that’s calm and relaxed — and that would help them in a very specific scenario, the researchers realized.
As the study authors explained in their published findings, “The infant calming response to maternal carrying is a coordinated set of central, motor, and cardiac regulations. Infants under six months of age carried by a walking mother immediately stopped voluntary movement and crying and exhibited a rapid heart rate decrease.”
But this was all for a good reason. The authors explained how both human and mice babies had evolved to calm down when lifted as a survival mechanism. “The calming responses may increase the survival probability of the infant in cases of emergency escape by the mother-infant dyad,” they wrote, using the term for treating mother-and-child as one unit when administering medical care.
Strange as it may seem, this calming of the infant is actually connected to the parents’ fight-or-flight response, which some refer to as the acute stress response. Either way, it means the same thing: when faced with something either physically or mentally frightening, we experience a series of physiological effects. These help us determine if we want to stand our ground or flee the scene.
Such an internal reaction has long been present in human beings. Ancient people — those with predators and other dangers to deal with in their environment — needed this physiological adjustment to survive. They had to quickly decide whether to fight or run, and their bodies would react just as fast.
As such, thousands of years ago, moms would grab their babies and run when faced with a predator or enemy, and their fight-or-flight instinct would kick in. Their little ones also adjusted, staying quiet and calm in their arms, thus making the escape much easier. And that’s why experts believe that babies respond so well to being held to this day.
The study explained why babies prefer to be held and moved around. But it also provided a tried-and-true way for parents to get their little ones to relax — pick them up and start walking. Doing so will trigger the infant’s built-in instinct to be quiet and settle down, which is precisely what grown-ups want their crying babies to do.
The authors of the study hoped that their findings would help parents do a better job raising babies, too. They wrote, “A scientific understanding of this physiological infant response could prevent parents from overreacting to infant crying. Such understanding would be beneficial to parents by reducing frustration because unsoothable crying is a major risk factor for child abuse.”
And, of course, holding a baby and moving around until they relax is something every parent can do. As one dad commenting on Quora reminded frustrated parents, this stage would pass — and they should try to enjoy the moments spent cradling and coddling their infants as much as they can, too.
Of course, there are a few other methods that experts recommend for soothing a crying baby. Parents can try to give a pacifier to their little ones or talk to their babies. A warm bath can also be calming for an infant, just as it is for adults at the end of a long day.
Experts also recommend plenty of movement-based remedies. They say to take a baby for a walk in a stroller or a ride in the car to calm their crying. Patting or rubbing a baby’s back can do the trick, too. And we now know why — a bit of movement sends the baby an evolutionary message that it’s time to calm down.