Dr. Harvey Karp explains why a newborn alone in a quiet nursery has plenty of reasons to cry
The fourth trimester
Dr. Harvey Karp urges parents to adopt the role of “a walking uterus” for the first three months after baby is born, what he calls the “fourth trimester.”
Karp is coming to Long Island to demonstrate his techniques. He says babies have a “calming reflex” that can be triggered by the “Five S’s” – swaddling, positioning him on his stomach or side, shushing loudly in his ear or playing white noise, swinging him to mimic the jiggling motion of the womb, and letting him suck on a pacifier or breast.
“The reason this is important is, crying is a terrible nuisance. It’s one of the banes of a new parents’ existence,” Karp told Newsday in an interview. “Crying is not just a nuisance, but it’s a primary trigger for postpartum depression, for marital stress, for breast-feeding failure, for child abuse. for maternal smoking, for SIDS, for the overtreatment of children with acid reflux medicine, for mothers overeating and mothers getting into car accidents.”
You’re speaking at Destination Maternity – these women haven’t even had their babies yet. Why is it important for them to consider theories such as yours before baby arrives?
The key concept for taking care of a new baby is the idea of the fourth trimester. The idea that, in this weird sort of way, babies are born three or four months before they’re really ready to bloom. It’s the critical theory when you understand that living in the womb is a symphony of sensations – jiggling motion, constant sound … and constant touch – then you understand how bizarre it is to take a new baby and stick them in a room by themselves on a flat bed in a totally quiet space. If you understand that ahead of time, then you’re primed for your job when the baby is born, which is to be one big, walking uterus.
So you want to help new parents think of the nursery differently?
A nursery, it’s kind of like taking an adult and locking them in a dark closet. It’s really sensory depriving. The whole idea that babies cry because of sensory overload, which is one of the most common myths in our culture, is kind of crazy. Of course, if you bang pots next to a baby’s head, they’re going to cry. But most babies, if you take them to a noisy basketball game or a noisy party, they go to sleep. So it turns out that babies, for the most part, are not overstimulated, they’re terribly, terribly understimulated. They’re missing the rhythmic, hypnotic calming stimulation they had 24/7 inside the uterus. When you understand it from that perspective, from the baby’s perspective, it gives you a clearer view of … why they love swaddling and why they do so well with white noise all night long.
You’ve said that dads are usually the best baby calmers in the family. Why?
No. 1, swaddling. Swaddling is the hardest thing for parents to understand. It’s kind of like tying your shoelaces. The first time you see someone tie their shoelaces, you think you get it. Then you try it, and you get all bollixed up. You need to watch it, practice while you’re watching it. Then once you get it, it’s easy. Guys are a little better at spatial relations. It’s kind of like an engineering job for them. They take great pride in doing it perfectly, then they kind of want to flip a quarter off the baby. If you swaddle them and it’s too loose, it makes them cry more.
You’ve also written “The Happiest Toddler on the Block,” urging parents to speak to upset toddlers – which you define as 8 months to 5 years old – like they are “cavemen.” You tell parents that during a tantrum, they should initially mimic their toddlers’ tone, even in public, to empathize and thus calm them.
Like primitives, they [toddlers] don’t start out having a very good ability with understanding language or holding back their impulses. Toddlers start out ape, and when they get upset, they go Jurassic on you. When you understand that, it totally changes the way you speak to them when they’re upset and allows you to be 100 percent more effective with a frustrated, frightened or angry young child.
How can moms and dads overcome feeling foolish doing this?
You’re embarrassed when your kid has a meltdown, anyway. Why not be embarrassed and be constructive?
Written by Beth Whitehouse, posted on October 21, 2009, Copyright 2009 Newsday, Inc.