What Kind of Baby-Soothing Sorcery Is This?

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The video is almost as soothing to adults as it is to the blissed-out babies it features: California pediatrician Dr. Robert Hamilton demonstrates the Hold, a technique he’s honed over the years to calm wailing newborns in seconds. One moment, the tiny child is crying its lungs out; the next, after a few moments in Hamilton’s hands, the kid is perfectly content. 

Just what sort of baby-whispering sorcery is going on here? In the video, which has been played more than 9 million times since being uploaded late last week, Hamilton mentions that he came up with this technique because he needed a quick and reliable method to quiet babies down so their parents would be able to listen to his recommendations without being distracted. Science of Us reached out to Hamilton, who is probably busy in his newfound internet fame and thus did not return a call. But Dr. Robert Block, a former president of the American Academy of Pediatrics, is among the millions who have watched the video this week, and he gave us this explanation for why Hamilton’s technique works.

At least two parts of the Hold — the arm-fold and the rocking — are a bit baby-soothing 101. In the video, Hamilton first folds the baby’s left arm across its chest, and then the right, placing his hand over the tiny arms to keep them in place. “It was pretty amazing, actually, how quickly the baby stopped crying,” Block said. “But I think body contact is a factor; he puts them in a secure position, holding them so that they sort of could sense that they were safe.” It’s the same reason some babies respond to swaddling, and others just really like to be held close. “You notice when they come in, [the babies are] sort of laying on the exam table — they were sort of free in space, and babies don’t like that,” Block said.

As for the rocking, theories abound as to why this helps calm a crying baby. One thought is that it may help the babies regulate their breathing, “with breathing changing from an irregular deep, shallow rhythm to a faster, more regular one,” according to a 1989 report in the Canadian Medical Journal.

Again: Neither of these things are exactly giant leaps in baby-soothing science. But the 45-degree angle at which Hamilton holds the babies is particularly interesting to Block. “The point he made that was important is that he was holding the baby at that 45-degree angle,” he said. “If you hold a baby straight up, and you’re not supporting the head, then — and he mentioned this in the video — then they can throw their head back, and if you’re not careful, that can cause somebody holding a baby to lose control, and the babies can fall.” In other words, this final step is more about securing that baby in place, something that should help to calm both baby and baby-holder.

Block wanted to make clear that this won’t necessarily work for every baby, and that once the infant is beyond 2 or 3 months old it will likely be too big to hold in this way. But for some little ones, it seems to work like a near-instant path to serenity now