The Colic Cure

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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.

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  • Kris Hasson-Jones

    The gall of that man implying that because I didn’t do those things in the *right* *order* my son had colic every night from 6:00 pm until 2:00 am until he was 9 months old! So it’s all my fault, eh? Baloney. Primitive societies also used to routinely expose infants they couldn’t feed or didn’t want (often because they were the wrong sex), but we don’t follow that model these days.

  • happy parent

    It is apparent from reading this review from Sydney that he/she had limited experience with raising children when this review was written. I have 3 children and was fortunate enough to discover Karp’s research thesis about 8 years ago online, not the book. I’m a researcher myself and rely heavily on observation, and trial & error. I’m the youngest of 7 siblings and had the fortunate opportunity to observe most of them deal with “colicky” babies. Reading his thesis made complete sense, in fact it was total common sense. Something Americans seem to lack these days. And yes, the indigenous and aboriginal cultures are probably much better caregivers in the first few mos. of life than any of us. Do I feel offended or threatened? No. Then why all the negativity? These are time-tested methods, and your grandmothers probably used these same methods when you were a lil’ snot-nosed kid. The difference is she didn’t give you the procedures manual for taking care of newborn infants, but then again, you knew everything anyway, right? Mothers learned through observation and then passed it down from generation to generation, even within our own culture, probably up until the last century. Somewhere along the line in our high-tech society, we lost that tradition of caring for infants. All this guy is doing is getting back on track. This method actually does work. My wife and I are grateful for his insightful research. After we used Karp’s methods successfully for 2 babies, we’ve since then helped out numerous friends and relatives by buying them the book and a special swaddle blanket. They’ve all had the same success we’ve had.

  • Nin

    This book saved my sanity. It works. May not work for everyone, but I don’t care about everyone else. So what if the 5 Ss have been part of countless lists? Karp’s book lays out a tried and tested methodical way of using these tools simply and effectively.

  • Lela

    Thank you for this post. Although I believe that the 5 ‘S’s’ are good practice, they are nothing close to the promised magic bullet for my colicky 7-week-old. I do all that primitive culture BS – I wear him in various positions in a sling for hours a day, I don’t own a car so we’re always walking, we breastfeed on demand including outside the house in the sling, I stopped eating dairy, I swaddle him and shush him and swing him and offer him pacifiers/fingers/nipples to suck on and lay him on his side and his stomach. Know what? He still screams for hours a day. I still believe that all that stuff is beneficial. But it hasn’t even close to cured his colic.

  • Beth Simon

    I investigated and watch the Happiest Baby on the Block on the suggestion of my baby’s doctor. Some of the techniques worked like sucking and swaddling. Shushing for me didn’t work, I’m not sure if I did it right. I actually ordered a white noise cd from PediaSlumber. This combined with the 5’s worked like a charm. For me it really has been like the fourth trimester like Dr. Karp says. TA least I had some tools to cope and the hours of inconsolable crying became manageable short bouts of fussiness.

  • jeromie

    I don’t really care about his theories about the calming reflex or 4th trimester or even primitive cultures…the bottom line is it works and has saved our sanity and makes us feel like better parents.

  • Jason

    I loved this book and the techniques AND the frame of mind I adopted after reading about the forth trimester made raising my newborn much easier and even fun. I didn’t find the book to claim groundbreaking techniques, it was pretty clear that these techniques have been used for ages and are still quite popular in certain cultures. And yes, believe it or not, there are documented studies on the lack of colic in some of these cultures, whether that’s due to their womb-like nurturing of the babies or not, who knows. I also found VERY CLEAR that not all babies are simply sensitive to life outside the womb, that some have REAL ISSUES that need attention. The confusion here is that many people (my parents are examples of this) think that as soon as a baby starts squirming, smiling, fussing, grimacing, anything, that they have gas cramps or indigestion.. sometimes they really do have a problem but I do believe that’s the exception case.