The Best Way to Soothe a Crying Baby May Be a 5-Minute Walk

A mother holds a newborn baby in a room with plantsShare on Pinterest
A new study suggests that “transport motion,” or walking with a crying baby, helps lower their heart rate and fear response. Studio Taurus/Stocksy United
  • New research suggests that 5 minutes of walking with a crying baby followed by 8 minutes of holding still can help induce a state of calm.
  • This approach was found to slow the baby’s heart rate and ease them into sleep.
  • A longer sleep duration before being laid into their cot also reduced the chances of the baby reawakening.

Parents with a new arrival are no strangers to nighttimes disrupted by crying.

While countless parenting books and articles have outlined approaches to soothe crying infants, new research has proposed another option.

A study conducted at the RIKEN Center for Brain Science (CBS) in Wako, Japan and published in the journal Current Biology has suggested the best way to stop a baby from crying doesn’t involve any special gadgets or skills.

Instead, researchers say that parents should carry their baby while walking for 5 minutes, then hold them still for 5 to 8 minutes before laying them back down.

To arrive at the 5-minute approach, the scientists tested four methods using 21 crying infants ranging from 2 weeks old to 7 months old. These methods involved:

  • the mother holding the baby while walking
  • the mother holding the baby while sitting still
  • laying the baby in a rocking cot
  • laying the baby in a still cot

The researchers found that the babies’ crying subsided the most when they were moved around — either in their mothers’ arms or in a rocking cot.

Meanwhile, to arrive at the optimum time frame, each method was tested for varying durations to see how the babies’ responses differed.

Almost half (46%) of the infants were asleep within 5 minutes of being walked around, and a further 18% were asleep 1 minute later.

However, when babies were immediately laid into their cribs after being soothed to sleep by walking, over one-third were awake within 20 seconds. How they were laid down did not influence whether they awoke, which surprised the researchers.

“I expected that the slowness and gentleness of laydown of sleeping infants [would] increase the success rate, but this hypothesis was not supported,” Dr. Kumi Kuroda, PhD, a researcher at RIKEN CBS and co-author of the study, told Healthline.

But, when sleeping babies were held still for longer after being moved — 8 minutes compared to 3 minutes — they were much more likely to stay asleep when put into their cot.

“Babies have a startle reflex called ‘the Moro reflex’, [which] is activated as they are lowered down,” Rosey Davidson, an infant sleep consultant in London, U.K., and founder and CEO of Just Chill Baby Sleep, shared with Healthline.

“If you can put them down when they are in a deep sleep, this is less likely to happen.”

The researchers suggested that “transport motion” plays a role in soothing crying babies.

Transport motion is a physiological response recognized in some mammals, such as dogs and monkeys, and involves the baby animal’s heart rate slowing when they are picked up and carried.

For the Japanese study, an electrocardiogram was used to monitor the babies’ heart rates and a similar response was found. Their heart rates slowed after being walked around and rose when moved away from the mother’s body.

“We’ve known as a species for a very long time that one of the ways we can soothe our children includes carrying them,” Dr. David Berger, a board certified pediatrician in Tampa, FL, and owner of Wholistic Pediatrics & Family Care and health education company, DrDavidMD, explained to Healthline.

The explanation for this, according to Dr. Amy Baxter, CEO and chief medical officer of Pain Care Labs and pediatric emergency physician in Atlanta, GA, is that the transition out of the womb has an intense impact on infants.

“They’re no longer experiencing the constant swaddling and background sounds of another human,” Dr. Baxter shared with Healthline.

“When the brain’s safety system is in overdrive, the amygdala, which causes fear, is triggered. Most likely what is happening is that infants are accustomed to the walking and movement of the mother. Without it, they have higher arousal — and this is perhaps the reason it takes 5 minutes [for] the infant amygdala to calm down.”

Tips to try the 5-minute walking technique

Dr. Kuroda shared the following guidance for achieving success when using the walking-holding-laying technique:

  • Make sure the baby is held close against the body, either in the arms or in a sling.
  • The 5 minutes of walking should be continuous and without any sharp turns or stops.
  • Keep the baby’s head still and ensure it doesn’t move about.
  • Use a clock to keep track of the time rather than relying on guesswork.
  • Don’t pause your walk to check if the baby is dozing off.
  • If the baby is still crying after 5 minutes, you can continue walking for a further 5 — but stop after 10 minutes in total.

It can be incredibly frustrating — and upsetting — for parents if they cannot calm their baby.

“Babies cry at night for a whole host of reasons,” Davidson said. It could be “because they are hungry, wet, cold, hot, in pain, or sometimes just because they want to be close to their caregiver.”

While the researchers found the 5-minute walking technique beneficial for many infants in the study, Dr. Berger noted there is “rarely a one-size-fits-all solution.”

If transport motion doesn’t work to soothe your infant, here are a few other tactics you can try.

Give them space

Davidson said that some babies require physical space and may find the holding and rocking overstimulating.

“You might find your baby needs to go down fully awake in their cot from the beginning of the night,” she added. “This way, they’re aware of where they are when they fall asleep, which can contribute to a settled night.”

Create bedtime rituals

Establishing bedtime rituals for your baby can help enhance their feelings of calm and security.

“It might be that you pat them to sleep in their sleep space, sing to them, hold their hand, or have your hand on their tummy,” Davidson suggested.

Play white noise

Just as some adults find certain sounds aid in sending them off to sleep, the same applies to babies.

“White noise mimics the sounds of the womb and the blood whooshing through the placenta,” Davidson explained. “It can be especially calming for babies.”

Find the sleeping ‘sweet spot’

According to Davidson, it can be useful to anticipate when babies are tired — but not too tired, for bed.

“We want to settle them at night when sleep pressure (our drive to sleep) is high,” she said.

“This builds throughout the day and reaches its peak at bedtime. We don’t want to keep them awake longer than they are comfortable with; otherwise, they can be harder to settle.”

Talk with a pediatrician

Some parents may need to consider whether health-related factors could be preventing their baby from being soothed.

“The baby may be teething, have reflux, or negatively reacting to something [they were] fed,” Dr. Berger said.

If your baby continues to be unsettled, ask their pediatrician to check for any underlying issues that could potentially be the cause.

The findings from the new research offer a promising new approach for parents looking to soothe their crying baby.

The positive influence of motion on the baby’s heart rate and fear response could be behind the technique’s success levels.

However, Dr. Kuroda explained that it’s important to “be aware that the efficacy of the method is stochastic [random], and that 20–30% of infants cry excessively without medical reasons.”

More research is needed in this field, she added. And although her team hypothesized their technique would be effective with different caregivers (such as a father, guardian, or grandparent), this has yet to be confirmed.