How to Have a Happy Baby

You don't have to be a mind reader to figure out what she wants. These simple strategies will put you both on the road to bliss.

Newborn Smiling in Blanket AnikaNes/ Shutterstock
I'll never forget the time I came home to find my mother folding laundry on the living room sofa while my newborn son was screaming his lungs out upstairs in his crib. "How long has the baby been crying?" I asked. Breast milk soaked my shirt as I shot up the steps, and she continued calmly making piles of miniature socks. "A few minutes," she called after me. "I was going to finish this up and then get him."

In my mother's day, the wisdom was that if you picked up an infant the minute he cried, you'd spoil him. So she thought she was not just getting ahead of the laundry for me: She was building my son's character. The latest research shows this just isn't true. "Babies indicate a need through gestures like wiggling when uncomfortable, or opening and closing their mouths when hungry. If that doesn't get your attention, they'll resort to crying," notes Darcia Narvaez, Ph.D., professor of psychology at the University of Notre Dame, in South Bend, Indiana, and the coeditor of Evolution, Early Experience, and Human Development. According to Dr. Narvaez, meeting your newborn's needs before she gets distressed helps build a calmer brain, self-confidence, and the expectation that she will be cared for, which leads to her being able to comfort herself.

Of course, no baby is going to be smiling all the time, nor should he be. "Babies' needs should be largely met in the first six months," says psychologist Maria Gartstein, Ph.D., of Washington State University, in Pullman. "But after that you needn't rescue them from every negative emotion. They should get the chance to regulate and soothe themselves." This road map will help your little one get to her happy place.

Consider Baby's POV

Experts of previous generations didn't realize that newborns aren't yet shrewd enough to manipulate their parents. "That's a skill we acquire as we get older," notes Jane Morton, M.D., clinical professor of pediatrics at Stanford University School of Medicine, in California. Instead, a newborn cries and fusses to have his basic needs met and to adjust to life outside the uterus.

Until now, your baby has spent most of his time being held tightly inside a cozy womb. "Suddenly, he's exploded into this noisy, bright, busy world, and it's so different from what he knows," says Dr. Morton. When he becomes overwhelmed, you can soothe him by putting gentle pressure on his tummy, holding and rocking him, making shushing noises, and offering a pacifier or a clean finger to suck on—all things that remind him of the womb. 

Cuddle and Caress

Numerous studies have found that positive touch—especially slow caresses and gentle stroking—makes an infant feel safe and comfortable by reducing her level of cortisol, a stress hormone, and stimulating the production of oxytocin, a feel-good hormone that's calming and promotes bonding. "It's important to have lots of physical contact in the early months," says Dr. Gartstein. "Observe what your little one seems to like and dislike and then follow her lead." Skin-to-skin contact is built into breastfeeding. If you're bottle-feeding, you can pull up your shirt and hold your baby's bare body to your belly while feeding her. At bath time, gently massage her scalp, tummy, arms, legs, hands, and feet if she likes it. And whenever your munchkin coos and leans toward your touch, don't hold back on the hugs and kisses. Bonus: Those sweet snuggles stimulate "feel good" neurotransmitters in parents too.

Plan for Lots of Sleep

When your sweetie is exhausted, his mood is hardly going to be all rainbows and unicorns. To improve the chances of a peaceful, cooing baby during waking hours, let sleep take precedent over pretty much everything else. Dr. Gartstein coauthored a study comparing Dutch babies with American babies and found that the babies from the Netherlands appeared generally happier and easier to soothe. One of the likely reasons for this is that the Dutch emphasize sleep. "For example, when Dutch parents bring their baby home from the hospital, they often send out cards inviting friends to visit at specific times, so that they don't interrupt the baby's sleep schedule," notes Dr. Gartstein.

If your little one starts rubbing his eyes and has been awake for two to three hours, that's your cue to put him into his crib. Use a white noise machine or app to drown out any household noises. Keep it at a low volume and away from Baby as much as you can, to protect his hearing. Time your errands for after he wakes up, not before a nap, when he's likely to doze off in the car. "Sleep is one of a baby's primary activities, and we have to be ready to deal with it," says Dr. Gartstein.

Yes, there will be times when you have no choice but to wake your pumpkin (for instance, if you have an older child whose preschool pickup interferes), but aim for consistency. If he's crabby later, see if you can squeeze in another nap before bedtime to make up for it. 

Tune In to Your Baby

We get it. You're busy. There aren't nearly enough hours in the day to run a household, earn a living, return texts and e-mails, plus post cute pics of your munchkin on Instagram. However, one of the most important things you can do to have a happy baby is to observe and interact with her to learn her cues.

"What children need the most is an attuned caretaker," says Jenn Mann, Psy.D., of Los Angeles, author of SuperBaby. "Being present, through eye contact, smiles, and loving gestures, gives your baby the respect she deserves." Take time to play one-on-one with your sweetie before you leave for work. Sing songs while you make breakfast. Gaze into her eyes while you change her diaper and talk to her as if she's hanging on to your every word (she probably is, even if she doesn't know what you're saying). Remove temptations like your phone or laptop from the nursery. If you're busy around the house, narrate to your baby what you're doing while she watches.

This doesn't mean you should pressure yourself to spend every moment interacting with your baby, however. She'll also need some downtime, and most babies don't want nonstop stimulation. "Pay attention to her. If she starts yawning, arching her back, or turning away from you, it's time for a break," says Dr. Gartstein. Don't keep going until she becomes so overwrought that she cries.

Offer Choices, but Not Too Many

"We will never understand what it feels like to be a baby," notes Dr. Morton. Imagine you have no say about what or how much you eat, where or when you sleep, or what you get to wear. Someone else gets to decide that 24/7. Ditto the music that is playing in your house, the lighting in your bedroom, and even whether you will hop in the car and go for a ride or stay home. This is your infant's life—always at your mercy and never in control of anything. Keeping that thought in the back of your mind can make her fussy bursts more understandable.

As Baby gets older, you can foster her development and also boost her happiness by bringing her to the decision table. "I'm a fan of two acceptable choices," says Dr. Mann. This empowers your baby without overwhelming her. So let her pick between the steamed broccoli and the baby peas. She's happy. You're happy. Done and done.

Get Out of the House

Sometimes a grumpy baby just needs a change in scenery. Take a stroll in the park and push him on the swings (if he's at least 6 months old). Let him feel the sun on his face, hear the trees rustle, smell the fresh air, and people-watch. Specifically, babywatch. "Babies are addicted to other babies," says Dr. Morton, who recommends having your little one socialize with the same children repeatedly—on play dates, at the library, or in a music class—so he starts forming relationships.

Let's be honest: Getting out is good for your mood too. Caring for a baby is hard, isolating work, and you shouldn't feel guilty about wanting a break. If you're bored or unhappy, do something about it. Join a mommy group, stop missing that book club you love, and talk more openly with your partner. "Children with depressed mothers are more vulnerable to becoming depressed themselves," cautions Dr. Morton. If you start feeling overwhelmed, crying excessively, experiencing changes in sleeping or eating habits, or being unable to think clearly or make decisions, those are signs that you should see your health-care provider right away

Do a Body Check

Unfortunately, babies don't talk, so sometimes you have to be a detective about what might be making her cranky. If she has slept well, eaten, passed gas, and doesn't have a dirty diaper or fever, do a body check. Make sure clothing isn't irritating that sensitive skin, and check her fingers and toes in case a hair is wound around one of them. Dr. Morton also recommends doing something with your baby that ordinarily makes her happy, to see if you can distract her. Maybe give her a massage, put her in a warm bath, or rock her in her favorite baby swing. 

Know When It's Okay to Let Him Cry a Little

As your sweetie grows, it's inevitable that he will become frustrated or upset as he attempts to sit up, crawl, walk, and feed himself. In these cases, a few tears can be developmentally appropriate. "It's a dance between a parent and a baby," says Dr. Morton. One of the most important things for children to feel is capable, and the look of pride on your baby's face as he walks across the f loor for the first time on his own says it all. The struggle was worth it. Because you will have shown you'll be there to turn to during the tough as well as the good moments, he'll feel confident enough to attempt new challenges. And that's the goal! 

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