The 5 S’s for settling newborn babies

The 5 S’s for settling newborn babies is something every new parent should know. I spend a lot of my time telling parents not to fear their baby’s crying. It is their only form of communication at a young age, and all babies cry. But that doesn’t mean it’s easy to listen to, or that we can’t help them soothe.

At a very young age, these 5 S’s, from Dr Harvey Karp, can really help with newborn settling. You can soothe your new baby to stop them crying, and that also means sleep comes easier because then they’re relaxed (and we all need to be at least semi-relaxed to drift off into sleep).

The familiar is soothing

Babies get used to what they know. But just because they’re new to this world, it doesn’t mean everything is totally new. Your new baby has already experienced life in the womb (indeed, they were already sleeping in the womb from 25 weeks gestation). Therefore, helping to recreate the womb-like environment, is generally calming for a newborn. But before you go and put your baby in a dark box – let’s discuss the 5 S’s, how they came about, what they are, and how you can use them to calm your own newborn baby.

Where it all began

After seeing many colicky (crying) babies Dr Karp was fascinated by Mother’s from the Kalahari Desert, who could calm their fussy babies in under a minute! But their secret only appeared to be that these mothers constantly fed, rocked, and jiggled their little ones. In essence, they were mimicking the womb experience.  

From this, Dr Karp surmised two things. The first:

 Human babies are born 3 months early

In comparison to other animals, whose babies can stand and walk just minutes after birth, our babies are effectively helpless. We call this the 4th trimester. Developmentally our babies are exactly the same as they were in the womb. Their brain patterns and their sleep are the same – at least for the first few months.

But they’re now bombarded with a lot of other sensory experiences that are new (think light, sound and touch). And if you were wondering why our babies arrive in the world so much earlier than other mammals. It’s because they need to be delivered early due to a baby’s rapidly developing brain. If they waited, their heads could be too big to fit through the birth canal (NOT fun for Mum).

The second lightbulb moment was when Dr Karp discovered that

 Newborns have an innate calming reflex

Dr Karp figured that the rhythms babies experience inside the womb, like the movement and the constant hum of noise, triggered a reflex that can keep babies relaxed. He considered this calming reflex a neurological response that develops in a baby’s brain months before they’re born. Although, he does specify that these techniques do have to be done “exactly right” to always work. He considers it nature’s “off switch” for fussing and the “on switch” for sleep.

And thus, the 5 S’s were “born”

These may not be new to you at all. Indeed, Dr Harvey Karp readily acknowledges that parents all over the world have been doing this instinctually for decades. Maybe you already have too. But here they are in simplified form:


Swaddling is the first S for newborn settling. This involves wrapping your baby up like a mini burrito, with their arms secure (at their sides or on their chest) and their hips loose, with legs splayed. This wrapped sensation recreates the gentle hug and security of the womb. It also reduces the startle (or moro) reflex, which can wake babies up from sleep.

Please note that babies should only be swaddled for sleep, or if they are unsettled and you’re actively trying to calm them. Also, you need to stop swaddling your baby as soon as they start rolling, if not before.

Side or stomach position

The second S for newborn settling is the side (or stomach) position. Holding your baby on their side or on their stomach (or over your shoulder) works much better for soothing than trying to calm them when they’re on their back. Think back for sleep, but side/stomach to soothe (when you’re holding them).


The 3rd S for newborn settling is shushing. Shushing (or the staticky sound of white noise) recreates the sound of blood pumping through the womb. Babies don’t need total silence to sleep. In fact, Dr Karp says they prefer a noisy environment that reminds them of what they know. But ensure it’s a consistent noise. Like pure white or pink noise (not waves or raindrops, as they don’t sound like the womb).

Back in the “olden days” (when my son was a newborn) we used a radio between stations for static, or the vacuum cleaner. A hairdryer (for noise – not blown on baby) can work too. These days there are apps that can help. But if you are anxious as a parent hearing your child cry (don’t worry we all are to some extent), I do recommend you try shushing and humming loudly (which will also stimulate your vagus nerve and help you calm down too).


The 4th S for newborn settling is swinging. Swinging is backwards and forwards (as opposed to rocking, which is typically side to side). Think of it as the jiggling motion while your little one was in the womb. Hold their neck and head and make short quick swinging jiggles. For small babies, this motion only needs a movement back and forward of a few centimetres. I sometimes use it for bigger babies (over 4 months of age) and then you can increase the swinging motion.

While this motion resembles that of a baby swing, please note that baby swings should not be used for sleep, or for long periods of time as the head can flop forward and restrict breathing. And of course, never shake a baby. It’s better to put them down (crying if needed) and walk away, than toget upset and risk injuring them.


And the 5th S for newborn settling is sucking. For newborns, sucking is soothing. Whether it be on a pacifier (soother or dummy), your finger or a breast. Dr Karp states that sucking lowers Baby’s heart rate, blood pressure, and stress levels.

Non nutritional sucking (not taking in food) can also do wonders to help stimulate saliva and help with digestion and gas. If you are breast feeding, wait to introduce a pacifier until feeding is well established. After that point non-nutritional sucking could be helpful here too.

So, there you have the 5S’s for settling crying babies, and once settled, it is easier to pop them down for sleep.

If you’re looking for some baby calm, I do hope these techniques help you! However, if they don’t seem to be working, look for other things going on. This is where something like Dunstan baby language can give you some clues about what baby needs (if they’re gassy or hungry for example). And do check that baby isn’t wet or uncomfortable (that the nappy isn’t too tight for one).

If you’re after more sleep with your newborn, check out my newborn guide for establishing healthy sleep habits over the first 3 months.

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