How to hold a baby

There are few things more terrifying to hold for the first time than a brand new baby. These cute new people seem to have needs entirely foreign from those of a full grown adult. With a few brief explanations of why a baby needs specific care, one can easily establish a comfortable ability to cradle these tiny bundles of joy.

There are three distinct growth phases that require slightly different techniques; under 6 months, 6-12 months and 12-24 months.

Newborn to six months

Infants under six months have little to no muscular skill. Somewhere around six months a baby develops the muscles that allow them to do two important things, sit up unaided and roll from back to front. Because they lack the strength to hold their neck still, when picking up an infant of this age always support the neck with one hand, by sliding it behind the babies shoulder and head before lifting off of a surface. Similarly, do not lift this small of an infant up by one limb, provide support for the whole torso.

Newborn babies have several soft spots on their skulls. When a baby is born their skull is actually several bones, allowing for it to compress and exit the birth canal. Over the first two years of life, a babies skull fuses together becoming one solid bone. Be careful to protect those soft spots by not allowing the head to roll on sharp objects that might press into them. It is also important to recognize that infants are learning those muscle skills necessary to control their body. Do not leave a baby unattended on a high surface. They might roll over for the first time, and fall.

Babies this small need the most amount of snuggle time. Skin to skin contact helps them bond with their caregivers. Cradling the baby, or holding it with its head by the crook of the elbow and the feet by one hand and using your torso and other arm to contain him there like its torso is a football is a great way of keeping them close. It also works wonderfully when bottle feeding, or if the right person is holding the baby, for breastfeeding. Laying the baby against the chest with its face turned sideways against the caregivers heart allows for warmth, touch and the soothing sound of a heartbeat. Many parents employ baby wearing techniques or items to keep infants close. 

Another important hold for babies afflicted by colic or other stomach ailments is aptly called the colic hold. The infant is turned on its stomach, along the forearm, with the head cradled in one hand and arms and legs allowed to dangle off the sides of the arm. The other arm and torso are again used to keep the baby firmly supported. While this hold helps soothe upset stomachs, parents and caregivers should never place a child to sleep on its stomach, as it increases risks of SIDS .

Though sleep is not the right time for babies to spend on their stomach, parents and caregivers should provide a safe surface for babies in this age group to engage in tummy time. This observed play time allows baby to work on those muscular skills he or she will need to begin crawling, and allows them a new perspective to their world. Some babies like tummy time more than others. Pillows and other props or soft toys should never be left near an unattended baby. They develop so quickly its impossible for even an experienced caregiver to know when baby will suddenly learn to move.

Six to twelve months

This stage starts with baby sitting up unaided, and progresses to crawling, and for a few infants walking. Though the original cradle, colic and snuggle holds still work, these new people have better muscle skills. They can be hip carried, or “sat” on a forearm. It requires greater effort in baby-proofing.

A hip carry is precisely what it sounds like. The babies butt is braced between one forearm and the hip of the caregiver. Their feet dangle or grab around the waist of the holder. The other arm is often used to stabilize the babies back. While the hip carry provides greater flexibility for the parent, it also can cause discomforts because of the uneven distribution of weight on the caregivers spine. Switching hips frequently eases this discomfort.

Another carry is the forearm sit. This is similar to the hip carry but baby is brought in front, and a bit higher. One forearm is used as a base, and baby sits facing inward or outward on that arm. The other hand reaches across the small of the back if seated facing toward the adult, or reaches across the stomach if seated outward bracing the child against the front torso. This hold is often tiring. Many other “carries” for children this age are possible with the aid of baby wearing wraps, slings and carriers.

Infants of this age are mobile or right off of mobile. They will move. Remove all small objects from the ground when placing them on a safe play area. An object that can easily fit through a toilet paper tube is too small of an infant this size. When in doubt, it is best to err on the side of caution. Babies often put object in their mouths. They want to experience the world with all their senses, including taste. Its best to provide clean safe toys within reaching distance at the sitting stage. Make sure baby cannot reach the top or bottom of flights of stairs, even if its only three steps. Also ensure that babies in this early exploring stage cannot accidentally touch hot surfaces, such as fireplace hearths or wood burning stoves.

Twelve to twenty four months

Babies in this group are rapidly turning into toddlers. Many begin walking before eighteen months. Some progress to running. Most start climbing. Many of the holds used for a six to twelve month old still work, but parents with more active children can begin giving piggy back rides and placing the baby on their shoulders.

While a twelve month old baby might pull themselves up on furniture, older infants can crawl up onto chairs, crawl up stairs, or even pull themselves onto a coffee table. This requires extra vigilance on the parent or caregivers part. Climbing children can overcome smaller blocks, making the hassock or coffee table a challenging adventure for the baby rather than a gate to keep them away from the stairs. Similarly, babies this age may learn how to open cupboards, refrigerators and the lower drawers on furniture. Door locks and drawer locks can minimize their access. Falls may happen, and babies in this group are still at serious risk of neck and head injuries. If there is ever a question of well-being after a fall, contact 911 or the emergency services in your area.

Babies this age are developing their independence, but they don’t have strong enough legs to keep pace with their caregivers for longer walks. Piggy back rides, where both hands cradle the babies butt against the small of the back, while the baby hugs around the neck or grabs the caregivers collar provides another way of holding this aged infant. Though safe for children with strong arms and good balance, parents should understand the skills and limitations of their own child.

Similarly, placing the baby on the shoulders is a good way for baby to travel at the adult pace. Babies legs dangle on either side of the parent, giving them easy hand holds to help baby balance. Baby can wrap their arms around the forehead for extra stability. Some children do not enjoy sitting on shoulders and may panic. Some little boys will not be comfortable because it presses certain parts against the neck.

In conclusion, as baby grows and develops muscle skill and coordination, needs for handling and holding change. From fully supporting holds, such as cradling and snuggling to allowing them to ride on one’s shoulders. Along the way babies explore their world, requiring caregivers to constantly re-assess the safety needs and play toys that baby may need. By observing, caring and understanding why babies require this extra attention, parents and caregivers can lovingly hold and handle even the most fragile infant.