I linked quite some time ago to a review of The Happiest Baby on the Block, by California pediatrician Dr. Harvey Karp. I pointed out what some of the tougher critics had said about it, and what others who liked it said, and concluded that the truth was probably somewhere in between. Well, now I’ve read the book, and I can tell you the truth defintely lies somewhere in between.
Dr. Karp would like us to believe that he’s hit upon the absolute cure for infant colic. That after “exhaustive research” he’s discovered the secrets that have alluded Western parents for ages. All we have to do is read his book, and watch his video, and do everything exactly right, in the right combination.
And what is Dr. Karp’s groundbreaking discovery? There are two of them – the “fourth trimester” and the “calming reflex”. Both are based on pop anthropology – the belief that primitive societies are bastions of goodness and truth, where no baby cries and every parent is happy.
Dr. Karp looks at primitive socieites and sees that they carry their babies around more than we do, which is true. They have to do more manual labor than we do and don’t have the luxury of baby-sitters. He believes that babies in these primitive societies don’t cry as much as Western babies. That may not be true. Their parents might just not be so bothered about the crying – they’re too busy working hard to survive. He theorizes that human babies weren’t meant to be born at forty weeks, but much later. Our larger brains have made it necessary for us to be born prematurely. Primitive socieites realize this and thus carry their babies around with them as if they were still in the womb.
The first couple of months of life is his “fourth trimester” when we’re really meant to still be inside the womb incubating. So, what newborns need is to have the environment of the womb recreated as closely as possible. Doing this will kick in his other invention, the “calming reflex.”
This “calming reflex”, according to Dr. Karp, is a fetal reflex that keeps a baby from twisting and flailing around in the womb so they don’t get caught in their umbilical cords. It’s supposedly brought about by the motion of the mother as she goes about her daily activities. There’s only one problem. Dr. Karp offers no studies on fetal movement to back this up, and there are plenty of cases in which children are born with umbilical cords wrapped around their necks or their bodies. Sometimes, the cord is even tied in a knot. The reflex is a pure product of his imagination.
Although the “fourth trimester” and the “calming relfex” are more theory than certitude, the suggestions that Dr. Karp offers based on these theories, do have some merit. They just aren’t the groundbreaking revelations that Dr. Karp portrays them to be. He calls them the 5 “S’s”. First and foremost is swaddling, the ancient art of tightly wrapping a newborn. Although swaddling is a technique that hasn’t been widely handed down in modern generations, it is something that every hospital nurse who cares for newborns knows how to do quite well. And it works. The others are placing the child on his stomach or his side; “shhhing”, sometimes very loudly in their ear; swinging as in those infant swings or some other back and forth motion; and sucking as in pacifiers. Not much different than the advice of good old Dr. Spock. Or what you see many parents do as they try to calm their crying baby. The difference, Dr. Karp says, is that you have to do them in the right order and in just the right way, which he is happy to demonstrate for you in his video ($18). Of course, it may take a few weeks to work, he’s careful to point out. Then again, colic usually subsides on its own after a few weeks, too.
So does the Harvey Karp method work? Who knows. He offers many testimonials that suggest they do. But, it’s difficult to take testimonials at their word. It’s doubly difficult to take testimonials peppered with exclamation marks seriously. And when those testimonials are from celebrities? Forget about it.
This isn’t to say that Dr. Karp’s book and video aren’t useful. Life with a baby with colic can be a living hell. For parents living in such a situation, Dr. Karp provides help that they may not get anywhere else. Just don’t expect miracles. And don’t blame yourself, or the baby, if it doesn’t work. In the end, no one really knows what causes colic. Not even Dr. Karp.