It’s challenging enough to tend to the needs of a newborn. It’s quite another to tend to the needs of a crying, whiny and inconsolable newborn. Enter Dr. Harvey Karp, nationally renowned pediatrician and child development training specialist who happens to be the creator of the country’s most popular program for calming fussy babies.
Karp’s methods revolve around the premise that our culture is not as advanced as one would think when it comes to soothing a crying baby. By looking at other societies more primitive than ours, Karp came up with four key principles to help parents comfort their babies and promote sleep: The Missing 4th Trimester, The Calming Reflex, The 5 S’s and The Cuddle Cure.
Recently, Chicago Baby got the opportunity to chat with Karp about his New York Times best-selling DVD and book, The Happiest Baby on the Block (Bantam Dell), which contradict common perceptions of new parents and teach innovative ways to help stop the crying.
CB: Many parents I know have read your book, watched your DVD and used your techniques. What is the most important part of your program?
Karp: The fourth trimester concept is the most important thing to understand. Once you appreciate the concept of the fourth trimester, you realize that just by being born, babies are already getting a 25 percent cut of the rocking and holding they are used to inside the uterus. Then you can appreciate why they need to be swaddled, have white noise and swinging motion. It’s a whole lot easier than parents think it may be to calm your baby, but it’s like getting your driver’s license. You need the education first.
CB: Your program contradicts some things I’ve heard about baby calming and sleep training. What are some common misperceptions about calming babies and how can new parents overcome them?
Karp: There are dozens of myths about calming your baby that get perpetuated because people don’t understand. For instance, people think you should put a newborn baby in a quiet room. In reality, the babies don’t want quiet. I have found through my techniques that using white noise is a critical step in boosting sleep and quieting babies. In some cases, if you use white noise from the start, it can increase a baby’s sleep time by one to three hours at a time. But the quality of the white noise makes a difference. A fan or air humidifier isn’t strong enough. CDs are my preference because they are portable.
Also, some experts say you can’t sleep-train a baby until it is 4 months or so, but I’ve found that sleep-training can start in the first week of life. It turns out that it’s easy to teach babies to sleep better by swaddling and having white noise all night long.
CB: That would be a dream for many sleep-deprived parents. But what if your baby is colicky?
Karp: Colic is just the extreme level of normal for a baby who isn’t ready to be in the world. It’s almost never the case that babies have terrible gas pains or acid reflux. Babies have sensations in their stomachs, but it’s not pain. It just bugs them and they don’t have capacity to calm themselves. They need extra help.
In our culture, it’s normal for people to say “all babies cry” and “they’ll get over it.” On average our babies will cry an hour a day, some up to three hours a day. Then I researched the !Kung San tribe in Africa whose mothers can calm their babies in under a minute. All babies, even those super fussy ones, can calm down once you learn some specific techniques. The revelation is that babies have a calming reflex you can induce by using the steps in my program. You have to faithfully adhere to it and do it just right, but if you hit that sweet spot, it really works.
CB: Your program doesn’t just help nervous parents, but also ones in need. Can you explain?
Karp: Baby crying is a nuisance, but it’s a bigger problem than that. Crying and fatigue are primary triggers for marital stress, child abuse, breastfeeding failure, SIDS, over treatment for acid reflux, maternal obesity and maternal car accidents. There are tons of things associated with crying and fatigue. It is actually a pretty serious public health concern. We started a program four years ago to train educators to teach “Happiest Baby” classes. They’re like Lamaze classes, but what you do after the baby is born. Now there are more than 3,000 educators nationwide. These classes have been extremely successful.
CB: What local outlets do Chicago parents have to access your program’s services?
Karp: Prentice Women’s Hospital at Northwestern Memorial has one of the most successful parent education programs. They offer six classes a month. If you go to www.thehappiestbaby.com, you can find a class near you. We have educators all over Illinois.
Sara Rontal Fisher is a Chicago mom and freelance writer.