Tips for a Successful Sleepy Newborn Session with Amy Guenther and Lindsey Stock
Whether you specialize in baby photography or you just book the occasional newborn client, you’ve probably experienced one of the most frustrating parts of the job: newborns who don’t want to sleep. It probably doesn’t sound like an issue at first. So what? Just pose them awake! Except that awake newborns don’t always equal content newborns, and it’s a lot harder than it seems to pose a wiggly, arm-flailing, cross-eyed, screaming baby. We’ve had our share of super-alert newborns. We’re going to share how we approach those sessions without getting frustrated and still get the variety needed to fill a gallery in 3 hours or less.
PREPARING FOR THE SESSION
While every baby is different and there are no foolproof guarantees that every session will go exactly the same, you can take steps to prepare yourself and your clients for the session to go as smoothly as possible.
It’s a widely debated topic in the newborn photography world: prep guide or no prep guide? Some contend that parents must follow a long list of strict instructions in order for the session to be a success. On the opposite end of the spectrum, others say following a prep guide will stress parents out, overstimulate babies, and the session will be a disaster. We fall somewhere in the middle, and have found that when parents are able to follow our simple guidelines, sessions almost always go more smoothly than when suggestions are not followed.
1. Interact with baby
We ask parents to interact with their newborn for an hour or two before the scheduled start time of their session. We don’t ask them to keep baby awake all morning, we just don’t want them sleeping all morning either. We suggest that they play with baby or give her a bath before they leave for their session. Ideally, baby will be ready for a long nap when they arrive, but not be kept awake for so long that they are overstimulated and overtired.
2. Feed baby
We ask parents to feed baby a full feeding right before leaving home, or to plan on feeding her immediately upon arriving at the studio. We want baby to start the session with a full belly so she remains asleep for as long as possible.
3. Dress baby comfortably
We ask parents to dress baby in loose-fitting clothing that buttons or zips down the front and does not pull over the head. We want to be able to easily undress baby without disturbing her.
4. Bring a pacifier
We ask that parents bring a pacifier for baby, even if she does not normally take one. A pacifier can be useful when transitioning from one pose to another, or to keep her settled long enough to get the shot. We recommend the “Soothie” or “JollyPop” brands, as they are easy to hold onto, easy to pop out of baby’s mouth, and they don’t leave red markings on the face. A pacifier should not be used in place of feeding a hungry baby—we take as many breaks as needed and expect that babies will want to eat more than normal during a session.
Preparing a relaxing, welcoming environment and having the right tools available are important steps to ensure a successful newborn session. Here’s what we do.
1. Plan and set up ahead of time
We have clients fill out a questionnaire of style preferences at the time of booking so that we can plan setups and have everything ready to go before they arrive at the studio. Some examples of style preferences we offer to choose from are vintage, rustic, neutrals, bright colors, and floral. We also offer a free-typing field where clients may list specific colors they do or do not wish to incorporate in their session.
2. Make the studio warm, but not too warm
We set the thermostat somewhere between 75–80 degrees Fahrenheit, and also place a space heater next to our posing area that we can turn on or off as needed. The goal is to keep the studio warm enough that baby does not get too cold and wake up, but not so warm that she overheats. Babies can easily become overheated, especially if you’re using multiple wraps, so be aware of the signs of overheating.
3. Use white noise
White noise machines are available anywhere that supplies baby gear. You can also find free white noise apps on your smartphone. We like the Baby Shusher too—not only does it provide white noise, but it runs on a timer of 15 or 30 minutes, so it helps us to maintain a sense of how long we’ve been working on a pose or when it’s time to move onto something else, without having to keep checking the clock.
4. Make parents comfortable
Our studios are set up with a couch and television, so parents can relax while we are working with baby. We encourage them to bring a book to read, to watch TV, or even take a nap during their session. If siblings are going to be in some photos, we ask that they have someone come with who can take the siblings home or to a park or mall when they are done with their part, to limit the possibility of noise and chaos during the remainder of the session.
WHAT IF BABY IS ALERT?
Sometimes no amount of preparation will result in a sleepy baby—whether they are fussy because they’re gassy, going through a growth spurt, an older newborn, or just plain alert and wide awake. Now what do you do?
1. Make sure baby is fed, burped, not too hot or cold, and has a clean diaper
Also try to remain calm and not get frustrated. Baby can sense your tension and it will stress her out, too.
2. Give baby a chance to wear herself out
Attempting to soothe a wide-awake baby to sleep is an exercise in futility. As long as she isn’t screaming or clearly uncomfortable, let her squirm around a little and get tired. Do some tummy time on your posing surface. Put her on her back, unwrapped, and let her get in a little workout.
3. Make it work
We place baby directly in the middle of the beanbag on her back looking up at the ceiling, with a small posing device underneath her head and our light to the side, and take some awake shots while she wears herself out. For this, we like to use the footpiece of the Shapeshifter posing set from Hello Little Props. The easiest way to comfortably do this is to take the images upside down and flip them over in post-production. It takes a bit of trial and error to get used to, but give it a try! With a squirmy baby, expect to take a lot of shots to get a few good ones. When taking overhead shots, always make sure to use a wrist strap or neck strap.
After you’ve allowed baby some time to squirm around and get tired, swaddle her up for some wrapped poses. Babies will almost always fall asleep with proper wrapping. We start with the Ugly Wrap from our shop as the base wrap to the potato sack pose and subsequently our entire wrapped workflow.
Now that baby is asleep and wrapped up, we can get a wide variety of poses while gradually transitioning back to sleepy, unwrapped poses. Start with the potato sack pose. We use our Ugly Wrap, Potato Belt, Butt Halo, and Fat Suit posing tools in order to achieve the perfect “potato.
Next, we move on to potato sack in a prop. We like to use a basket or crate for this pose and switch out the top wrap to achieve a totally different look that does not disturb baby.
After the basket, we remove the Fat Suit and Potato Belt and switch out the top wrap again for another overhead pose in a different prop, such as an antique “trencher.” This pose could also be done on a fabric backdrop on your beanbag or other posing surface.
Next, we gently peel down the top of the base wrap to free up baby’s arms, and we move on to the bucket pose. We love using the Everlasting Bucket and Bucket Huggers from Hello Little Props to easily achieve even more variety with this pose.
After the bucket pose, we move back to the beanbag for an overhead “tucked in” pose, while still keeping baby’s bottom half wrapped up. This tucked-in pose can also be achieved in a prop such as a bed or crate.
Finally, we move on to the “froggy” pose as our first unwrapped pose. We start with baby’s hands while she is still partially wrapped up, and slowly unwrap her bottom half to transition as smoothly as possible without waking her.
If you shoot newborn sessions, you will inevitably get the occasional challenging baby. It’s unavoidable and happens to all of us. The more prepared you are, the greater your chances of producing a beautiful gallery with lots of variety. Try putting into practice some of these techniques and suggestions. Find what works for you and fits into your session workflow. And most importantly, take a deep breath and relax, you’ve got this!