You’ve finally got your baby to sleep on your chest after what has felt like hours of feeding, rocking and comforting and it’s time to make the transition to the crib. You lay them down, stroke their head and creep away from the crib before ARGH! Your baby startles; spreading their arms to the side in shock as if someone has just shouted Boo!
Your baby has startled themselves wide awake and the crying has resumed. This is common with newborn babies but can be both frustrating and exhausting for parents and babies alike! It can also be quite upsetting to see, as they can look genuinely scared after being woken with such a start.
This completely involuntary movement is called the Moro reflex and is effectively your baby’s reaction to a sensation of falling. At a very young age, your baby has little control over their limbs, and as such, this unfamiliar feeling can cause them to hit themselves or jolt themselves awake. The Moro reflex can occur completely at random (even when they have self-settled), or it can be in reaction to noise or sudden movement.
What can you do to help?
If you find that your baby is startling themselves regularly, there are a few options that can help reduce the impact and ensure your baby doesn’t wake unnecessarily.
Careful transitions – Firstly, be careful how you support your baby when you lay them down in the crib. After laying on your legs or being held firmly against your chest for some time, the release of that support on their tummy and back can really make them feel like they are falling. Keep them as close to you as possible when laying them down, holding their back and neck to provide as much support as possible. Only release when the mattress is firmly under them so that they do not mistakenly think they are being dropped. It sounds obvious, but this subtle change can make a big difference.
Swaddling – Swaddling your baby can also help prevent startling, by cocooning your baby and keeping their arms close to their chest during naps and sleep time. As your baby grows you may want to gradually release their arms, but during the first three or four months of their life (where the startle sensation is most common), a secure swaddle can be really effective. Swaddling itself can be a bit of an art form and you may find that a particularly wriggly baby can work themselves free, but practice makes perfect. If you are struggling to master it with a cellular blanket, you can buy swaddle blankets with press studs or fasteners that are far easier for beginners.
The good news is, this reflex tends to settle after around 4 months of age – the point at which they become more aware of their arms and legs and their ability to move them at will.