“Can I hire you by the hour in the middle of the night please?”
This is a question I have been asked on more than one occasion!! Many of my clients refer to me as ‘The Baby Whisperer’ and although I’d love to claim that I have magic hands all I have really had is a lot of practice with newborns. Many of the little tips and tricks that I am now able to pass on to my clients during a session are things that I wish I had known when my two were born. So, rather than keep all this information to myself I have decided to share it all with you here.
A process of elimination
From speaking to many new parents over the years I know that one of their biggest concerns is that their baby will scream through the whole session. I can, in all honesty, say that having photographed over 140 babies this has never happened. Yes, some babies are more vocal than others but that’s just because they have more they want to tell us! When a baby is crying I will work through my little mental checklist. Are they hungry, do they need a new nappy, a burp perhaps, need to poop or maybe just over tired? As any new parent that has ever tried to leave the house will know, this little checklist is often cycled through multiple times before baby is happy.
If baby is content and awake then I always take the opportunity to photograph them awake (and hopefully tire them out a little!). However, to achieve some of the cutest newborn photos they really need to be asleep, and not just asleep but in a deep sleep and the key to a good deep sleep is a nice full belly.
The deepest sleep
A deep sleep always follows a big feed… but not before a good burp!! Newborns will often seem ‘milk drunk’ after a big feed so it is tempting not to risk disturbing them with a burp. A trapped burp can lead to a whole lot of discomfort and a wriggly baby that may wake themselves up before they even get into a true deep sleep. There are many different ways to burp a baby but my favourite method is to sit them on your knee and lean them forward onto the palm of your hand, using your thumb and forefinger to support their chin, keeping your fingers away from their throat. Then gently rub and pat their back. If after a big burp they are not asleep then I will always suggest trying to feed them a little more as a good burp can make a bit more space for milk.
If they are awake at this stage then I follow the 5 S’s guide. Swaddle, Shush, Swing, Suck, Side or Stomach. Being swaddled is like being hugged. It feels safe and babies love it. If done correctly it also looks really cute in photos! The methods that I use to swaddle for photos are different to how you should swaddle at home.
All babies love noise. The womb is a really noisy place and the sound of shushing mimics the rushing noises heard within the womb. There are many white noise apps available for your phone but during newborn sessions I use a Baby Shusher and it works a treat. Babies also love movement. I always remember noticing how still my bump was when out and about and the minute I would sit down then they would be wriggling about all over the place. So swinging, bouncing and bottom patting are all things I will try when soothing a baby to sleep.
The controversial ‘S’
The next ‘s’ is sometimes a little controversial due to concerns about ‘nipple confusion’, but there is no denying that babies love to suck. And some babies more than others. I have to admit that I really didn’t like dummies and thought they were a sign of lazy parenting but this was based on no personal experience. That all changed when I had Ollie, my second son, and all he wanted to do was suck. I knew he was getting plenty of food as he was piling on the pounds but he was only truly content when he was sucking. Sometimes I could see he was in pain as he was crunching his little legs up to his tummy, but sucking seemed to help. Being a bit of a science geek and having had one baby that didn’t have this constant desire to suck I decided to do a little research before succumbing to the dummy.
It turns out that the act of sucking has two important effects. When you suck (or chew) you produce saliva and saliva contains enzymes that aid digestion (yay!). The second is that sucking or chewing and swallowing is the first stage in the process of digestive peristalsis. Peristalsis is the process by which our esophagus and intestines contract and relax to help food and waste pass through our bodies. So when my little boy curled up with obvious tummy pain I now understood the reason why sucking on a dummy helped him so much. Having said all this, I didn’t give him a dummy until he was about 5 weeks old and I still fully respect the decision of any parent not to give their newborn a dummy.
The last S is ‘side or stomach’ and although the safest position for a baby to sleep in is on their back, posing a baby on their side or on their stomach is perfectly safe when under close supervision and is usually very comfortable for them.
I actually like to add another ‘S’…Stroking. Babies will often fight sleep. You can tell they are tired and their blinking becomes slower but they refuse to keep those eyes shut. Gentle, rhythmic stroking across their forehead or down the bridge of their nose can be enough to encourage those little peepers to stay shut!
Hopefully after a bit of perseverance (and some serious will power) your baby will be fast asleep, but we are still not quite there…in that magic deep sleep.
The sleep cycle
I love nothing more than a milk drunk baby but it’s not what I call real sleep. The first 20-30 minutes is relatively light sleep and they can easily wake during this stage. After this first stage they go through a usually quite noticeable transition phase. This is accompanied by shallow rapid breathing, a good wriggle and lots of funny faces. I am always on high alert when I notice a baby is in this phase as it is not only when I might capture a little smile but it is also when they may startle themselves awake. This is one reason that swaddling can really help. If they are not swaddled at this point I will often hold their arms and legs firmly against their bodies and give them a little wobble to help prevent this startle reaction.
It really does feel like a battle of wills sometimes but if I can keep a baby asleep through this transition phase then the deep sleep follows and this is where the magic happens!! Parents are often amazed by what is possible when posing a baby once they are in a deep sleep but it is worth the wait. Sometimes babies will go through another wriggly, smiley phase and back into a deep sleep before needing another feed.
I hope you have enjoyed reading this and find some of my tips useful but I feel I should point out that I am not a medical professional and that all my advise here is based on personal experience as a mother and as a newborn photographer. I am a member of Banpas (Baby and Newborn Photography Association) who promote newborn safety at all times and I have undertaken training in how to safely pose newborn babies. If you have any concerns about your baby please seek the help of your midwife or doctor.