Mimic the womb and baby will swoon

A pediatrician claims he can teach parents to calm crying infants anytime, anywhere, by imitating the quality of the uterus

Dr. Harvey Karp, a middle-aged California pediatrician, is sitting on the living room couch of a Toronto couple, swaddling and jiggling and shushing their one-month-old daughter, Càit. He is, he tells the new parents, recreating the womb.

Dr. Karp is in Toronto promoting his new book, The Happiest Baby on the Block: The New Way to Calm Crying and Help Your Baby Sleep Longer. He guarantees that his techniques will calm even the most colicky baby by triggering what he calls the “calming reflex,” an off switch for crying. Using his five-step “Cuddle Cure,” anyone, male or female, he says, can learn to become a walking uterus.

It all sounds more than a little hokey. It doesn’t help that the author is a natural salesman. Zany and gregarious, Dr. Karp is the ultimate Oprah guest, the Robin Williams of pediatrics. Still, it’s undeniable that right now his techniques, based on 20 years of research in child development, are working like a charm on tiny Càit.

“The concept,” says Dr. Karp, “is that human babies are born three months too soon.” Unlike horses, for example, who are equipped to run from predators the day they are born, human survival depends on our ability to be socially communicative. The brain of a nine-month-old fetus is not developed enough to smile, coo or generally charm someone into meeting their needs. This is why Dr. Karp calls the first three months of a child’s life “the fourth trimester.”

“A newborn baby is more like a fetus than an infant,” he says. “The brain could not mature enough [in the womb]; otherwise it would never get out. Their heads are as big as they can be before we have to evict them.” At this point, parents try, in effect, to recreate the womb as best as possible externally by rocking, holding and carrying the baby.

The problem is we don’t know why certain things work to calm a crying baby and others don’t. This is where Dr. Karp’s how-to book with companion DVD comes in.

Most people assume that crying is caused by gas pains or indigestion. In fact, according to Dr. Karp, this is true only about 2% of the time. The rest of the time, babies are merely reacting to the world with “the only word they have.”

“There’s a very sophisticated maturation that’s going on in the brain,” he says. “Babies are born with raw wires that are not insulated, so there’s a lot of short-circuiting going on. Within three months after birth, a lot of that insulation has developed, so messages get to where they’re supposed to go. If [a three-month-old] baby wants to look over there, their eyes can do it. But an infant, if she wants to look over, the message is going every which way.”

In his book, Dr. Karp teaches parents how to trigger the calming reflex anytime, anywhere, using what he calls “The Five S’s” to recreate such qualities of the uterus as “rhythmic motion, white noise sounds and a nice cozy fit.”

He firmly believes that leaving your baby to cry for fear of spoiling her is a myth. “You can’t spoil an infant,” he says. “No parent in the world wants to let their baby cry. Babies who are left to cry are learning that nobody ever comes to get me when I cry.” It’s a basic instinct for parents to want to calm their baby, he says, but what’s not instinctive is knowing how to do it.

Many of Dr. Karp’s techniques are not new, but in fact have been around as long as humans have. “In my early research,” he says, “I learned that there were certain cultures around the world where babies didn’t have colic, where there wasn’t even a word for colic, where babies cried for 30 seconds and parents knew how to calm them down. So I said, ‘What do these parents know in Africa, for example, that we don’t know?’ “

Dr. Karp spent 20 years identifying and finding biological justification for his calming techniques, which he now demonstrates on baby Càit.

The first S, he says, is for swaddling. “Just by swaddling your baby, you can add an extra hour of sleep,” says Dr. Karp, who wraps Càit snugly in a blanket, folding and tucking as though he were creating elaborate origami. The swaddling makes babies feel warm and secure and it prevents their limbs from flailing about. Also, their bodies under control, they can focus on the next four S’s.

The second S stands for side or stomach position, which he calls “your baby’s feel-good position.” These positions mimic the baby’s position in the uterus. Tipping them on their backs gives babies an unpleasant falling sensation.

The third, and certainly the most odd S, is for shushing. “Shushing imitates the sound of the blood swishing through the arteries of the uterus,” says Dr. Karp. He lifts up the well-swaddled Càit and makes a loud shushing sound directly into her tiny ear as she fusses. Immediately her eyes grow enormous and then slowly shut as her face relaxes.

“Her reaction was a combination of recognition and this sudden neurological change that soothed her,” he says. “Don’t worry about being loud. The sound in the uterus is a couple of times louder than a vacuum cleaner, so that’s why when a baby is very upset, they say turn on a hair dryer or a vacuum cleaner.”

Shushing is the S that people seem to have the most trouble with. “We’re taught in our culture that it’s rude to shush,” he says. “In our language it means shut up. But in our baby’s language, it means I love you, you’re wonderful, everything is going to be fine.”

The fourth S is for swinging. Here the swaddled, sideways, shushed infant is positioned along her parent’s knees. The parent then gently swings her knees back and forth. The baby’s head is cupped in her parent’s hands and treated to a slight jiggly movement, also called “the Jell-O head wiggle,” not to be confused with shaking, which is extremely dangerous to an infant.

“Inside the uterus, how does it feel for a baby? You’re climbing up and down the stairs, up a mountain, moving around in an exercise class.” Constant jostling becomes normal for the baby. “In fact, it’s only when you go to sleep at night that the baby wakes up and starts moving around more.” This is why, when a baby is upset, an electric swing will almost always calm her down.

Finally, there is sucking, giving your baby a pacifier, which she associates with having her hunger sated.

Dr. Karp points out that it’s important to use all of the S’s together, and that none of these techniques will work if your baby is truly hungry or sick. “They won’t mask anything,” he says.

According to Dr. Karp, North American parents are the least experienced of all, mostly because we’ve replaced the extended family with the nuclear family.

“It’s a myth that we should be in nuclear families,” he says. “We should be in extended families. Historically, parents always had grandmothers, cousins and neighbours so all the work didn’t fall on their shoulders. Now there’s so much burden on a parent, they don’t get a break. One of the nice things about these techniques is they give parents tools.”

Dr. Karp claims that every single baby in the world will respond to the “Cuddle Cure” in exactly the same way. This is a bold statement, but one, he says, that is deeply rooted in human biology.

“It has nothing to do with babies, it has to do with fetuses. The calming reflex developed because a fetus who wiggles around too much in the uterus will get into a bad position and get stuck. The baby will die and the mother will die. Over thousands of years, the babies that were hypnotized by the experience of the uterus were easily delivered. So we’re basically all the descendants of these Zen babies and, in fact, it is so deeply a part of our brain, it turns out that we all have a calming reflex, even adults.”

This is why so many people are relaxed by the sound of the ocean, the rocking of a train, or the gentle swing of a hammock.

“If I took you and cuddled you and went ‘shushhhh,’ your heart rate would decrease and your blood pressure would go down.” Everyone in the room is content to take his word for it.

Written by Lianne George, originally posted on July 5, 2002, at National Post.

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