Book Review: “The Happiest Baby on the Block,” by Harvey Karp, M.D.

One of my clients recommended this book to me, and I filed its title away in my mind for future reference. And then when I was six months pregnant, I suddenly became very interested in what the heck I was going to do with this baby once she was born. I loved this book. I not only read it, I read it TWICE. It was THAT GOOD.

This book should be required reading for every single new parent out there in the universe. It focuses entirely on the “fourth trimester” — those first three months of the baby’s life outside the womb. The author of the book, Harvey Karp, is a pediatrician in Hollywood, and his premise is that because babies’ brains and skulls are so big, they are born at a time when their heads still fit through their mothers’ birth paths but before they’re actually ready to be outside in the world. In essence, they’re still fetuses for three more months. And they miss life inside the womb. A lot. He says that “colic” doesn’t actually exist — the symptoms of “colic” in a baby are simply the baby wanting to be soothed exactly like it was when it was warmly and comfortably tucked inside mom. The whole book is about recreating that womb experience for new babies so that they can be calm and well-adapted to life in the outside world.

Harvey Karp describes five techniques that recreate the womb experience, what he calls the “5 S’s”: swaddling, side-lying or stomach-lying, shhhhhh-ing (or white noise), swinging and sucking. Swaddling creates a nice pressure all around the baby where the baby is inhibited in its limb movements. My husband thought that this looked like our baby was in a straight jacket. But when you think about it, babies are extremely limited in their movements for 40ish weeks. It’s not a “straight jacket” for them — we’re just anthropomorphising their experience. For the first four to six months, babies have a “startle reflex,” where, if they are lying on their backs (either in bed or in your arms), they feel as though they are falling backwards. To catch themselves, they throw their arms back, and instantly wake themselves up. Swaddling inhibits the startle reflex, and I can’t overemphasize how wonderfully well it works. It doesn’t calm the baby, but it sets up the baby to be soothed by the other four techniques. And by firsthand experience, I can tell you that a baby that wakes herself up every five minutes because of the startle reflex is a very unhappy baby (and her parents probably aren’t getting much sleep).

Ok, now that your baby is swaddled, the other four techniques will finish the job of soothing her. Side-lying or stomach-lying(when you’re holding her) prevents her from experiencing the startle reflex. Only babies who are on their backs will startle. Good to know. So, you’re holding your baby either on her side or facing the floor. Next, you start making a loud “shhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh” sound. This is a white noise that replicates the loud noise of the blood flowing through your blood vessels when she was inside (kind of like when you are lying in the bathtub and you dunk your head under the water. The water amplifies all of the sounds of your house’s plumbing.). Harvey Karp explains that babies love white noise. It’s the peace and quiet that disturb them. So, air conditioners, fans, white noise machines, and “shhhhhhhhhhhh” sounds calm them down. Adjust the volume of the “shhhhhhh” to match your baby’s volume if she’s crying.

Next, start swinging your baby from side to side. This mimics the lovely hammock-like swinging and swaying they experienced when mom was walking around every day. During my pregnancy, I never really noticed my baby moving around when I was in motion, but she really moved around at night. Maybe she was thinking, “Hey, mom! How about a little movement out there! It’s a little too still and peaceful for me to get to sleep!” You can do little jiggly movements or turn your body back and forth like a top-loading washing machine agitator.

Sucking is last, and Harvey Karp calls it “the icing on the cake.” Babies can either suck their thumbs, your fingers, or a pacifier. This satisfies their hunger, calms them, and soothes them in a fantastic way. Harvey Karp says that if you use a pacifier, the best time is between two to three weeks of age (so that breastfeeding goes well to prevent nipple confusion) and four to five months. Around four months, babies learns to stick their own thumbs in their mouths (sometimes both at once) to soothe themselves, and the pacifier is no longer needed. With some creative swaddling, you can also swaddle your baby so that her thumb is directly next to her mouth, and she can soothe herself at an early age. And now that your baby is soothed, you can put them down to sleep (on their back).

The last few chapters of the book continue with the theme of creating happy babies. One chapter goes into more details about some other tried and true “colic” remedies like infant massage, walking outside with baby, keeping them warm to soothe them, preventing food allergies, treating constipation, troubleshooting feeding problems, dealing with actual acid reflux (which is rare amongst babies), and using alternative medicine like chiropractic, homeopathy, herbal teas, and osteopathy. The last chapter is about baby sleep patterns, weaning your baby off the 5 S’s, techniques for helping babies sleep better, room sharing, co-sleeping, techniques to help prevent SIDS and suffocation, and answers to frequently asked questions.

In conclusion, the contents of this book saved my life, it probably saved my marriage and definitely saved my sanity in my first three months of parenting. For even more information (and for all of those visual learners out there), Harvey Karp’s techniques are featured on YouTube videos, like this appearance on Dr. Phil: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=a_64-LbhT3M. Cheers!

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