Handling the baby

Babies need to be touched and held close in the parents’ arms. Although new parents may feel uncertain about how to handle the baby at first, everyone eventually learns how to handle their baby gently but with confidence. Carrying the baby around, keeping them in your arms and talking to them promote the development of the baby’s nervous system, support motor development and help the baby to be aware of its own body and feel safe.

Holding the baby

The safest place for a newborn is in the parents’ arms. When you are holding the baby in skin-to-skin contact, they will recognise your heartbeat and breathing. This will calm the baby down. Holding the baby enables you to have eye contact. The parent’s face stimulates the baby and enables interaction. Early interaction supports the baby’s motor and mental development.

Being held helps the baby learn how to control their muscles. At first, the baby’s head needs supporting, but as the baby’s muscles gradually grow stronger, they learn to hold their head up independently. Supporting the head too much may slow down this development. The parents will also learn to adjust their touch to the way the baby controls their muscles.

Lifting and carrying the baby

Turn the baby to one side when you lift them or put them down. This way, the baby’s neck does not need that much support. Lifting the baby with one side up this strengthens their neck and shoulder muscles and reduces unnecessary tension. It also promotes the baby’s motor development, lets them experience lying on their side and gives them the idea of turning to one side.

Positioning the baby

There are many ways to carry a baby. It is a good idea to hold the baby in many different ways, as this reduces your muscle tension and supports the baby’s overall motor development.

The traditional cradle hold is a good way to carry a small baby.

The traditional cradle hold is a good way to carry a small baby.

You can also lay the baby across your arm, with the baby’s stomach facing down. This way, the baby can look around better. This position may also be helpful if the baby’s stomach hurts.

You can also use the shoulder hold where the baby’s arms are hanging over your shoulder. This enables the baby to see their hands and encourages them to hold their head up.

You can also carry the baby with the baby’s back placed against your belly. In this case, your arm is placed under the baby’s arms and grabs the baby’s upper thigh. The baby’s both arms are above your arm. This position strengthens the baby’s upper body and head muscles, and the baby will also practise bringing their arms to the body’s midline.

You can also use equipment to carry your baby, such as baby slings or carriers. These enable you to have your hands free, to gently stroke the baby and do daily chores. The equipment’s centre of gravity should be close to your body to prevent strain on your back.

On the floor

In addition to being held, lying on the floor is important for the baby's motor development and balanced muscle control. You can place the baby on a blanket or a play mat. You can sit or lie on the floor near the baby and talk to them. The baby can stay on the floor for as long as they are in a good mood. If your baby is already a bit older and makes small noises that express boredom, there is no need to immediately react and pick the baby up or place them on their tummy. You should let the baby practise rolling over and moving on their own.

The baby can lie on their back or stomach.

When the baby lies on their back, they get to know their body and practice bringing their hands to the body’s midline. The baby has more room to move and the movements of the body and the limbs are more versatile.

Tummy time strengthens the baby’s back and shoulder muscles and, later on, gives them the opportunity to put their weight on their forearms and hands and to practise moving around. At first, babies only like to spend a short time on their tummy. You can support the baby in this position for example by placing a rolled towel under the baby’s armpits.

The baby needs no equipment to practise sitting and moving (such as baby bouncers, Bumbo seats, baby walker chairs or doorway jumpers). The baby can spend short amounts of time in a piece of equipment every now and then, as this may help the parents do their daily chores. However, using such equipment a lot does not support the child’s motor development and may cause unnecessary muscle tension and toe walking.

A baby on the floor.

Baby massage

Baby massage has a lot of positive effects on both the baby and the parents. It is a moment fully dedicated to being together. Massage supports the baby’s development. It gives them experiences of closeness, develops their interaction skills and also improves the relationship between the parent and the baby. Massage is relaxing, calming and may even alleviate pain. It teaches the baby to be aware of their body and its dimensions. Massage can improve digestion, circulation and overall well-being. Research suggests that babies who experience gentle touching fall ill less frequently and cry less than other babies. Baby massage can help with fussiness, colic, muscle tension, gas in the tummy, constipation and sleeping problems.

Baby massage will give you confidence to handle your baby and help you learn to understand the baby’s reactions. Baby massage may also be relaxing for the parent.

The best moment for a baby massage is when the baby is awake and in a good mood. Avoid massaging the baby if they are hungry or they have just eaten. If the baby has a fever or a cold, take a break from baby massage. Pick a quiet and warm place for the massage. Turn off the television, the radio and silence your phone to be able to concentrate on your shared moment.

There are many ways to massage a baby. You can start by looking the baby in the eye and talking to them. Using gentle motions, massage the baby from head to toe, going through all areas of the body. You may also only focus on a certain body part, such as the baby’s belly.

Listen to your baby and observe their reactions. If the baby does not enjoy being touched, stop massaging for now. It sometimes takes a while for the baby to get used to being massaged, but it is worthwhile.

Shaking the baby

Babies enjoy being close to their parents, interaction and affection. They do not like rough handling, sudden movements or shaking.

Shaking the baby is a form of child abuse. It hurts the baby and can cause temporary or permanent physical injuries. The baby’s head is big and heavy compared to the body, and the neck muscles are still weak. If you shake the baby, the head will violently and rapidly snap back and forth. This can cause injuries and various symptoms. A baby who has been shaken may be sleepy, eat poorly, vomit and cry a lot, breathe irregularly and have a lowered level of consciousness. The blood vessels in the baby’s head can rupture, and this can cause bleeding in the brain and eyes. Shaking can cause long-term damage such as a visual impairment or learning difficulties. Shaking may even kill the baby.

Some of the reasons why parents may shake their baby include the parent losing their temper, exhaustion or getting tired of the baby’s fussiness.

In situations like these, try to calm down. You can put the baby down on a safe surface and go to another room for a while to calm yourself down. Try to think about other things, and for example turn on the radio or the television. When you feel calmer, go back to your baby. If you can, ask a friend or a relative to help. You can agree with someone in advance that they will help you if you need it. Not everyone has friends or relatives who can help. If this is the case, you can also contact your public health nurse or Family Work. Families who live in Espoo can get help with the baby from the city’s Family Work unit. It for example offers support, guidance and childcare services. Help with housekeeping can also be arranged. If your situation is acute, call the emergency number 112 or visit the emergency ward at a health centre or a hospital. Support is also available from Child Welfare Services.

If the situation still gets overwhelming and you end up shaking your baby, immediately seek medical help. Not asking for help immediately can be fatal to your baby.

Sources of help

The Mannerheim League for Child Welfare offers a helpline for parents (in Finnish), tel. 0800 92277.