April 2, 2016 Mary & Suzanne

Parenting the Sensitive Baby

If you are reading this post, likely you have already identified that your baby, or a baby in your life, might be a sensitive baby.  Welcome! You aren’t alone! These can be challenging times, so let’s see if we can help make some sense out of it all.

Often referred to as ‘high need babies’ or ‘colicky babies’ these babies tend to cry more, have more digestive upsets, are easily awakened, and have difficulty settling into sleep.

Parents are often sleep deprived and are at the end of their patience by the time they see an occupational therapist for help. Most have heard a variety of well-intentioned, unsolicited advice. Do any of these common themes sound familiar?

  • Let her/him cry it out
  • The baby is picking up on your tension, so you need to be more relaxed
  • You are spoiling the baby with too much attention

 Let us reassure you:

You are a good parent and you know your baby better than anyone else. Something about your baby is different and the typical approaches just don’t work. It’s our turn to give you information and tools that we truly believe will help your sensitive baby.

Coming from a sensory standpoint, our view is that the sensitive baby is telling you that he or she needs more help to be relaxed and happy. We have found that parents who use sensory strategies are more confident in their abilities to calm their babies.

Your baby may have a very sensitive system, in which case he may be generally overloaded by stimuli most of the time he is awake. One of the ways we can help this baby become better organized is by providing a daily diet of calming touch.

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Babies really benefit from being carried in a baby sling, which provides constant deep pressure and is very soothing. Baby massage once or twice a day is another great way to provide calming sensations. The effects of these activities build up over time and in a week or two you will have a more peaceful baby

We highly recommend tuning in to Mary’s video “Sensory Strategies for the Sensitive Baby” (below) for background information and informative intervention strategies to calm your fussy baby.

Our favorite sensory strategies include:

  1. Firm touch using swaddling, baby slings or front carriers. To swaddle, firmly wrap baby in a small blanket used for swaddling. Fold over one of the corners and lay baby on it so that his head will be clear of the blanket. Place baby’s hands down on his chest and bring the right corner of the blanket across his body and tuck it under his back. Now bring the other corner of the blanket across his body and tuck it behind his back, near where you folded the top corner down. There are swaddling blankets with Velcro tabs that make this process easy to do with a squirming baby!
  1. Providing proprioceptive sensations by doing the “baby dance”, (gentle bouncing motions as you walk with baby in your arms).
  1. Slow movement, for example; a rocking chair or slowly swinging baby in your arms. Baby swings set on slow speed are another good choice.
  1. Holding a pacifier in baby’s mouth (sucking is very calming for babies).
  1. Creating a calm environment with soothing colors, toys and sounds.
  1. Daily baby massage when baby is calm, not when baby is crying. Massage has been shown to help with overall calming, weight gain and improved sleep in babies.


The Sensitive baby will give us physical cues when he is becoming overwhelmed and needs help to calm down.

If we miss these STOP signs, babies will proceed to crying and may be difficult to comfort.

 These are the STOP signs we look for:

stop signsWhen we see one or more of the STOP SIGNS , we stop the activity, swaddle the baby, add slow rocking or gentle bouncing and hold a pacifier for baby, if needed. Some babies calm down easily when swaddled, some need every technique we have. Dr. Harvey Karp has a nice system for calming babies using similar sensory strategies. We recommend taking a look at his videos.

Using these simple sensory strategies to help your baby be more comfortable will make parenting the sensitive baby a wonderful experience!


Ferber SG, Laudon M, Kuint J, Weller A, Zisapel N. Massage therapy by mothers enhances the adjustment of circadian rhythms to the nocturnal period in full-term infants. Developmental and Behavioral Pediatrics 2002;23(6):410-5. http://www.researchgate.net/publication/10996314_Massage_Therapy_by_Mothers_Enhances_the_Adjustment_of_ Circadian_Rhythms_to_the_Nocturnal_Period_in_Full-Term_Infants

Fussy Baby Network, Erickson Institute (2013). Partners in care: Supporting fussy babies in child care. Retrieved from www.fussybabynetwork.org http://www.erikson.edu/fussybaby/

Hunziker, U. A., & Barr, R. G. (1986). Increased carrying reduces infant crying: A randomized controlled trial. Pediatrics, 77(5), 641-648. http://pediatrics.aappublications.org/content/77/5/641?variant=short&sso=1&sso_redirect_count=1&nfstatus=401&nftoken=00000000-0000-0000-0000-000000000000&nfstatusdescription=ERROR%3a+No+local+token

Serrano, MS, Doren, FM, Wilson L. Teaching Chilean mothers to massage their full-term infants: effects on maternal breast-feeding and infant weight gain at age 2 and 4 months. Journal of Perinatal & Neonatal Nursing (2010). Vol. 24, issue 2:172-81. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20442614


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