The Happiest Baby on the Block
Dr. Harvey Karp’s techniques are based on the theory that babies are essentially born 3 months too soon (the ‘Fourth Trimester’).
When they were in utero they were used to being ‘held’ 24 hours a day. They were constantly being moved around, jiggled and bounced, swaying from side-to side, with the loud and comforting sounds of the womb lulling them to sleep. Yet, once they are born, we expect that we can put them down in a quiet, dark room, in a crib, by themselves.
And for some babies, this is OK. They seem to be able to fall asleep and be quite content in any situation. But for other babies, particularly those with more spirited temperaments, an environment more similar to the womb is far more comforting and soothing.
The Calming Reflex
Reflexes are involuntary reactions our bodies make towards certain stimuli. For instance, during routine physical examinations, your doctor may check your knee jerk reflex; If she hits exactly the right part of your knee with her little rubber hammer, your leg should jerk involuntarily.
In the same way, the so-called calming reflex* is a baby’s response to certain stimuli. Dr. Karp believes that this reflex is present in babies in utero, and disappears somewhere around 4-5 months.
The reason for this reflex? Dr. Karp says that this reflex plays a crucial role during pregnancy: Imagine if babies became upset or frantic while in the womb. They would constantly be moving around, and changing position, which of course would be not only painful and dangerous for the mother, but would mean the baby could move out of the head down position necessary for a natural birth.
The Cuddle Cure (aka the 5 S’s)
Wrapping your baby very snugly in a blanket, to recreate the warm and secure feeling of the mother’s womb. The snugger, the better! Swaddling your baby too loosely can result in your baby breaking free of the swaddle, or even just further irritating them. Because newborns tend to unconsciously jerk and flail their arms and legs around, the swaddle allows the baby to remain calm and aids them in falling asleep and staying asleep.
The idea here is to hold your baby in the side lying or face-down position. Because a baby placed on his or her back may experience the sensation of falling, holding them in either of these positions can help them to feel more secure.
While your baby was in utero, he was constantly subjected to the sounds of blood rushing through arteries surrounding the womb. Anything you can do to replicate this shushing sound will likely help to calm your baby and help him fall asleep. The key is the volume of the sound; it has to be loud. Loud enough that he can hear the sound over his own crying or screaming.
Some helpful ideas I’ve heard are:
- The sound of a running motor (i.e. the infamous middle-of-the-night car ride)
- Clothes dryer or dishwasher
- Loud ‘shhhhhh’ing sound in baby’s ear
- Hair dryer
- Loud bathroom fan (this was our noise-maker of choice)
- White noise machine
- Vacuum cleaner
- Any of these sounds can be found on ‘white noise’ CD’s; very helpful if you don’t want the vacuum cleaner on all night (Dr. Karp has a white noise CD)
Because your baby was in almost constant motion while in the womb, many fussy babies seem to be lulled to sleep by swinging or rocking (back and forth, not so much side to side, unless you often walked sideways while pregnant of course!). Rocking your baby in a rocking chair, cradle, or infant car seat, taking them for rides in their stroller or the car, or ‘wearing’ your baby in a sling or other carrier are all great ideas.
The trick here is to make sure the rocking is quick enough and hard enough. In fact, what he suggests is putting your baby up on your shoulder and ‘jiggling’ them so their head jiggles slightly (not wildly around).
Sucking on anything: A pacifier, breast, bottle, or even your finger aids in calming your baby. It works best in conjunction with one or more of the other techniques.
All white noise is not created equally. Especially for kids who are really fussy, they need a harsh, multi-frequency sound….I now recommend babies sleep with it for at least the first year of life, because it not only helps the fussy baby sleep, but it helps them not wake up when they start having teething pain when they’re 6-8 months of age. Oftentimes the hum of a fan or an air conditioner are not adequate. For many kids who are put in swings, if you use a harsher white noise sound all night, they don’t need the swing. – Harvey Karp
*I believe the idea of the calming reflex is a term coined by Harvey Karp. I could not find references to it in other research or literature.