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Stop Baby Crying

Happy Babies: Five Simple Steps to Comfort Crying and Get More Sleep!

by Harvey Karp, M.D.
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All babies cry, and believe it or not, that's actually a good thing. How else would we know if our helpless infants were cold, hungry, lonely, or in pain?

During the first few months, babies fuss an average of 1.5 hours a day and 10% cry more than 3 hours a day (the medical definition of colic). That's a whole lot of crying, and it doesn't even include our crying!

Usually, this irritability starts churning around sundown and can go on for hours. No wonder it makes us exhausted, frustrated, and concerned. Traditionally, parents have been encouraged to just keep their chins up and wait until the baby grows out of it. But this is easier said than done!

Persistent crying - and the exhaustion it triggers in us - creates huge stress in families. That can include marital conflict, maternal and paternal depression, obesity/car accidents (people make poor decisions when stressed and overtired), SIDS, and suffocation (tired parents fall asleep, baby in arm, on unsafe couches and beds). In addition to this human suffering, the national costs of the complications due to infant crying and parental exhaustion total well over one billion dollars a year.

Calming Your Baby

Most doctors say that colic is a mystery. That's what I used to say too, until 1981 when I learned about the Bushmen of the Kalahari Desert who can usually calm their fussy babies in under a minute!

When I thought about it, I realized we could be as successful as the Bushmen, but only if we adopted two new ideas:
  1. All babies are born 3 months early. Although newborn horses can run within an hour of birth, our mushy little babies need a virtual 4th trimester of womb sensations (soft touch, jiggly motion, snug holding, etc).
  2. The symphony of rhythms fetuses experience every day before birth triggers a reflex that keeps babies relaxed. This calming reflex is a virtual off-switch for crying and an on-switch for sleep.
The Bushmen are successful because they mimic the womb by carrying and rocking their babies 24 hours a day (and feeding them 3 times an hour!). Similarly, many parents in our community soothe their babies with weird womb-mimicking tricks, like car rides and vacuum cleaner noise.

The 5 S's

No wonder babies do best when held, rocked, and shushed 12 hours a day. Does that sound like a lot? Actually, even 16 hours a day is a 40% cut back from the 24/7 embrace babies enjoy the months before birth. Smart parents around the world have invented many ways to calm babies, and most are variations of 5 simple womb-like sensations I call the 5 S's: Swaddle, Side-Stomach Position, Shush, Swing and Suck.

Swaddle: Swaddling imitates the snug packaging inside the womb and is the cornerstone of calming - it decreases startling and increases sleep. Plus, wrapped babies respond faster to the other 4 S's, and stay soothed longer because their arms can't flail wildly.

Babies shouldn't be swaddled all day, just during fussing and sleep. To swaddle correctly, wrap arms snug - straight at the side - but let the hips be loose and flexed. Use a large square blanket, but don't cover your baby's head or allow loose blankets, as this could cause overheating or suffocation.

If your baby struggles against the swaddle, just add the other S's and within minutes she'll be calm … and she'll sleep better, too!

Side or Stomach Position: The back is the only safe position for sleeping but it's the worst position for calming fussiness. This "S" can be activated by putting a baby on her side, on her stomach, or over your shoulder.

Shush: Contrary to myth, babies don't need total silence. That's why they're so good at sleeping at noisy parties and basketball games! In the womb, the sound of the blood flow is a shush louder than a vacuum cleaner.

But not all white noise is created equal. Hissy fans and ocean sounds often fail because they lack the womb's rumbly quality. The best way to imitate these magic sounds is with a white noise CD. CDs are better than sound machines because they're so easy to use in the car or when traveling. And, my "Super-Soothing" Sleep Sounds CD has 6 unique, specially engineered sounds to quickly calm crying and boost sleep. (To calm crying - play it as loud as your baby; to promote sleep - play it as loud as a shower.)

Swing: Womb life is jiggly (imagine your baby jiggling inside you when you walk down the stairs!). Slow rocking is fine for keeping babies calm, but to soothe crying mid-squawk, the motion needs to be fast and tiny. (My patients call this the "Jell-o head" jiggle.)

Always support the head/neck; keep your motions small (no more than 1-inch back and forth); and never, never, never shake your baby in anger or frustration.

Suck: Sucking is the icing on the cake of calming. Many fussy babies relax into a deep tranquility when they suck.

Other great calming techniques that imitate the womb include delicious skin-to-skin contact, wearing your baby in a sling, warm baths and gentle massage.

The 5 S's only work when they're done exactly right. The calming reflex is just like the knee reflex that only works when you hit the knee exactly right (hit 1-inch too high or low and you'll get no response).

All babies do better with swaddling and white noise, but try adding on the other S's, too, to see what your baby prefers. If she doesn't calm with the S's, ask your doctor to make sure she isn't ill. If there is no illness, she'll likely calm after you review The Happiest Baby on the Block DVD to make sure you are doing the 5 S's right.

The Best "S" of All - Sleep!

The keys to good sleep are swaddling and the womb sound CD. Sound is like a comforting teddy bear - play it for all naps/nights for at least the first year.

Sound helps good sleepers sleep even better. It also works to keep babies sleeping as they are weaned from swaddling at 4-5 months. And, it prevents sleep disturbances from mild hunger, outside noises, and teething pain.

After 4 months, the 5 S's may still work (even adults fall asleep rocking in a hammock and to the sound of rain), but the magic is no longer irresistible (shushing an irate 8-month-old might make her even madder!).

My next essay will give you some tips and techniques to keep kids 8 months to 5 years of age happy. 
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Meet Our Expert
Harvey Karp, MD, FAAP
Assistant Professor, Pediatrics USC School of Medicine
Dr. Harvey Karp is a pediatrician and child development specialist. He is an Assistant Professor of Pediatrics at the USC School of Medicine, and was in private practice for over 25 years.

Dr. Karp's critically acclaimed books and DVDs, The Happiest Baby on the Block and The Happiest Toddler on the Block, have made him America's most-read pediatrician. His baby work offers a solution to the 3,000-year old mystery "What is colic?" and helps parents calm crying babies in minutes to boost nighttime sleep. His unique approach to toddler care allows parents to reduce tantrums and help 8 month old to 5 year old children become more patient and cooperative…in just days.

The Happiest Baby educator program has trained thousands of instructors to teach Dr. Karp's effective baby calming and sleep techniques. This approach is used to promote parenting, reduce postpartum depression and breastfeeding failure, prevent child abuse, and promote safe sleep in hospitals, clinics, public health departments and military bases across the country and around the world.

Dr. Karp's work has frequently been featured in the national press, such as the New York Times, USA Today, People Magazine, Good Morning America, Dr. Phil, The View, Larry King Live, CNN, BBC, and others. He is also an outspoken advocate for our children's right to a healthy and safe environment, and the importance of breastfeeding.

Dr. Karp lives in Los Angeles with his wife Nina. Their grown daughter, Lexi, lives in New York.

You can find out more on Dr. Karp's website.
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Harvey Karp, MD, FAAP
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Harvey Karp, MD, FAAP
Book Cover Image. Title: The Happiest Baby on the Block:  The New Way to Calm Crying and Help Your Newborn Baby Sleep Longer, Author: by Harvey Karp, Harvey Karp

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