The five most important things to do to keep a baby calm when photographing a newborn
We’ve all seen those adorable photographs of tiny babies wrapped up like a burrito that seem to be ubiquitous with newborn photography. Maybe you’re a grandparent-to-be or expecting a baby of your own and would like to capture those first few days. I certainly did as a new mama, and as a portrait photographer already I couldn’t help thinking ‘how hard could this be?’. Well, plenty hard it turned out, the photography was actually easy compared with calming my wriggly newborn baby and getting him to sleep. Like anything, it takes knowledge, practice, patience, and a few tricks like this video from SLR Lounge will tell you.
Firstly I would advise anybody interested in photographing babies to take a course in it. These are real tiny humans and no photograph is worth placing any baby at risk. Coupled with that a baby and infant first aid course is a great idea for any child photographer, parent or grandparent. The baby’s safety is paramount and there are no cutting corners. Many of the intricately posed images you see are either composites or are done very carefully and skillfully using knowledge of the newborn’s physiology. OK so safety aspects done, let’s find out how to make a newborn sleep through the shoot!
The first part is to use white noise. If you’re unfamiliar with what that is, it’s basically a static noise like you used to get when trying to find a radio station. You could also try pink noise if you’re feeling fancy. You can get a dedicated white noise machine or simply use an app on your phone. The noise supposedly mimics the noisy sounds of the womb.
The next tip is to swaddle or wrap the baby. You can either use a triangle-shaped cloth for this or a long stretchy wrap. There are many different ways to wrap a baby, the key is to bend the arms at the elbow and keep them pointing upwards close to the middle of the body, you don’t want them stuck straight down at the sides along the body. Some babies love being wrapped, others not so much and will do anything to get free. Practice on a doll or teddy first! Again I’d absolutely recommend taking a short course in learning how to wrap a baby properly before trying it yourself as you don’t want to get it too tight.
The next tip is to keep a calming presence. If you’re not naturally a ‘baby person’, I’d recommend finding your own baby whisperer to help you. That way, you can have somebody rocking and shushing the baby and keeping their hands close in case the baby startles while you can be taking the photos. Don’t underestimate how much time a newborn shoot can take either, it can be hours to make sure the baby is comfortable, fed, changed and sleepy. And that brings us to the next tip: rock and shush the baby to send them to sleep. If the baby has just been fed they are more likely to be sleepy, but once it’s finished feeding it can actually help to keep the mother a little bit further away so that the baby doesn’t smell her and want to feed again straight away. Talk in a low calm voice as anything high energy really can make the baby become alert again, undoing all your hard work.
Finally, you need to not only keep your hands warm but keep the room warm as well. You should be in short sleeves and sweating somewhat. This is obviously much warmer than you would normally want a baby to be sleeping in but it helps the baby feel sleepy and relaxed during the photoshoot, particularly if they aren’t wearing clothes. Babies lose a lot of body heat very quickly and they are used to being in the womb at body temperature, they aren’t able to regulate their own temperature until they are several weeks old. It’s also a good idea to get to know when the growth spurts are for new babies as there is a large one usually around the 2-week mark where they become much more alert after this, and much harder to photograph in those curly sleepy poses. Generally for those you want the baby to be under 10 days old, however, that’s not always possible depending on the health of both mother and child.
Ultimately, you can try everything and still get a baby that won’t sleep, trust me, I know what that’s like! Perhaps try some lifestyle type images instead, include the parents, or just capture a slice of life with a newborn baby. These can be every bit as beautiful as the posed images and are often cherished even more by the family in years to come.
Alex Baker is a portrait and lifestyle driven photographer based in Valencia, Spain. She works on a range of projects from commercial to fine art and has had work featured in publications such as The Daily Mail, Conde Nast Traveller and El Mundo, and has exhibited work across Europe