Holding a newborn is often one of the greatest joys of new parenthood. It can also incite immense fear.
From their tiny fingers to their teetering heads, newborns look fragile, and many new parents are worried they’ll harm their baby by holding them in the wrong position. I understand their concern, but newborns are sturdier than many new parents realize.
While you must handle a newborn with care – and never shake the baby – you’re not going to hurt them during feedings or diaper changes if you use gentle, supportive movements.
Before you take your new baby home from UT Southwestern, our neonatal nurses and your doctor will demonstrate the best techniques for picking up, carrying, comforting, and laying down your newborn. You’ll get lots of practice before you’re on your own.
What’s most important is supporting the head and neck, no matter the position. From your first time holding the baby to the first few months at home, here are 10 do’s and don’ts for handling your newborn.
Related reading: 7 strange-but-normal things to expect with a newborn
Safe newborn handling and holding tips
1. Hold the baby like a football
While it might sound silly at first, you’ll find that holding your baby like a football – with their back on your forearms and their head nestled in the crook of one of your arms – is among the safest and most sustainable ways to hold a newborn. Angle the baby so their stomach is turned toward yours. This position is comfortable for the baby and gives you a more secure hold of your newborn, especially while sitting down.
2. Mind the baby’s soft spots
Newborns have two soft spots on their heads: the posterior fontanel in the back and the anterior fontanel on top. The bones in these areas of the skull have not completely fused together, which make it possible for the baby’s head to squeeze through the birth canal. It also leaves room for the brain to grow.
The soft spot in the back will close within a couple months; the spot on top can take two years to fully close. Touching these soft spots is fine, just don’t press down or let anything hit or fall on your baby’s head, as no bones are fully protecting the brain early in life.
3. Keep your baby upright after feeding
Upright positioning is necessary for burping your baby after eating, and sometimes they like sleeping upright against your chest while you stand or sit.
Instead of laying your baby down flat after feeding, keep them upright for about 30 minutes so gravity can help them digest their food. Otherwise, they’re more likely to spit up. With their stomach facing your chest, place their head near your shoulder with one arm supporting their bottom and the other hand supporting the back of their head and neck.
4. Wash your hands before touching a baby
Hand hygiene is very important when handling your baby, especially during the first two months. During this time, your baby hasn’t been vaccinated against diseases that can be spread through germs on unwashed hands.
Newborns have weak immune systems; it takes time for them to build strength against germs that likely would have no effect on you or your loved ones. So, be extra diligent about keeping your hands clean, and don’t feel bad asking visitors to do the same.
5. Keep the umbilical stump clean and dry
A little clump of tissue will stay attached to your baby’s belly button after we cut the umbilical cord during delivery. We’ll put a small clamp on it to keep it dry until you leave the hospital. It looks a little odd, but it will come off in its own time – usually within two to three weeks.
The best thing to do with the umbilical stump is to leave it alone. It can become infected if it gets dirty, so keep it clean and dry. Only clothes should cover it; don’t cover it with a bandage or the baby’s diaper. If it gets soiled, wipe it with water and soap that’s free of fragrances and dyes. If you see redness or discharge around the stump, it could be infected and require treatment right away.
Related reading: Should I have visitors in the hospital while my baby is being born?
Avoid these unsafe motions and positions
6. Don’t lift your newborn by or under their arms
Your baby’s head and neck muscles are very weak for the first few months. If you pick them up by or under their arms, you risk injuring their arms or shoulders. Worse, their head will dangle and could flop around, potentially causing a brain injury.
Instead, place one hand behind their head and neck and the other hand under their bottom. Gently scoop the baby up toward your chest. For more stability – and to protect your back – bend your knees as you shift forward and lift with your legs.
7. Don’t bounce a fussy newborn
New parents might try to soothe their newborn by positioning the baby upright against their shoulder and bouncing up and down. Though we’ve see this move frequently in movies and TV sitcoms, it’s not a great way to calm a fussy baby.
The up-and-down motion can be jarring and make the baby fussier, which may increase your anxiety, which can stress the baby more – it’s a vicious cycle. Instead, assume the football hold and gently sway them back and forth in a rocking motion while walking or standing. The flowing movement comforts babies by mimicking their experience in the womb.
8. Don’t extend the baby forward to someone else
If you’ll have a lot of friends and family visiting or helping out after you give birth, you’ll quickly get used to others wanting to hold the baby. Protecting the head and neck is the priority when passing your newborn to someone else.
Rather than holding the baby out in front of you, have the other person come close, facing you. Then, they should place one hand beneath the baby’s head and the other beneath the bottom before you release your grip.
9. Don’t sit or lie down to hold the baby if you are tired
Fatigue and parenthood go hand in hand – especially in the beginning. But if you’re sleepy and seated, the risk of dropping your baby increases. When you’re still in the hospital, alert the nursing staff that you’re becoming drowsy. We can help you put the baby in the bassinet or take the baby to the nursery while you rest.
At home, place your baby in their designated sleeping area as soon as you feel tired. Losing grip can happen in matter of seconds if you doze off, so it’s best to be cautious.
10. Don’t kiss your newborn if you have (or recently had) a cold sore
The urge to kiss your baby’s chubby cheeks and nose will be strong, but if you have a cold sore, resisting that urge might save your baby’s life. Cold sores, also called oral herpes, are caused by the HSV-1 virus, which can cause brain damage or death in newborns – their immune systems are not strong enough to fight the virus.
An HSV-1 outbreak starts forming even before a cold sore appears. So, if you feel the familiar tingling that typically comes before a cold sore forms, or if you had a cold sore recently, refrain from kissing the baby until the outbreak has fully cleared. Firmly remind anyone else who will be handling your baby to follow the same guidelines.
Related reading: How to protect your baby from herpes infection
You’ll get better with practice
Apprehension about handling a newborn is normal. But the more you do it, the more comfortable you’ll feel. And our neonatal team will make sure you get lots of practice before you’re on your own.
I also recommend that parents check out the book “Happiest Baby on the Block” by Harvey Karp. It has excellent advice on how to soothe a fussy baby and feel more comfortable holding a newborn. The more relaxed you feel, the more comfortable your baby will be.
To visit with a pediatrician about holding or soothing your newborn, call 214-645-8300 or request an appointment online.