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UCLA

The Baby Whisperer

A UCLA pediatrician shares his method for calming seemingly inconsolable babies in seconds.

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By Alison Hewitt

Published Jun 19, 2008 10:27 AM


UCLA Professor Harvey Karp saw lots of squalling babies as a pediatrician, and like anyone, he wanted to calm both the infants and everyone else's nerves. Where Karp differs from most people is that he succeeded.

Karp found what he calls an "off-switch" for the colicky shrieking that drives parents to desperation. "At a lecture during my child development fellowship at UCLA, I learned about the !Kung San tribe — the exclamation mark is a click sound," he said. "I learned that they could calm their babies in under a minute. It was clear to me that if they could do it, we could."

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Karp with two calm infants

He researched child development and how cultures from around the world treat newborns, and he learned to think of babies' first three months of life as "the fourth trimester," a time when infants crave the noises and sensations of the womb. The uterus isn't a sensory-deprivation chamber, Karp emphasizes. Fetuses hear the roaring sound of their mothers' blood rushing around them, feel the pressure of the womb hugging them, and are accustomed to the bouncing motion of their mothers' moving around.

"There are some extremely fundamental ideas we have about babies that are completely wrong — for example, that babies are over-stimulated and need to be in a calm, quiet place," Karp says. "They need stimulation."

The Calming Reflex

To help parents recreate a womb-like environment for their newborns, Karp teaches "the Five S's." But it's more than just recreating the sensations of gestation — it's so precise that he believes it triggers a reflex, just like a rubber hammer on the knee will make a person kick. Karp believes the "calming reflex" evolved to keep babies tranquil in the final months of pregnancy, when too much movement could result in injury or a breach birth.

See Karp in action

Faced with a loudly shrieking infant, Karp demonstrates the power of the calming reflex in this noisy clip from his video, The Happiest Baby on the Block.

"I've never had a baby not respond to the Five S's unless they're sick," Karp says. "That may seem far-fetched, but if I told you I could get a knee reflex 100% of the time, that's not far-fetched."

Limited studies have supported his findings, and more in-depth research is underway, but his method is already recommended by a previous Surgeon General and a slew of child welfare organizations. Karp sought a cure for colic with child welfare organizations in mind: as a member of UCLA's child abuse prevention team, he saw cases of abuse that appeared to be caused by parents unable to cope with incessant wailing.

"At first you think [the Five S's] are just nice, it keeps babies from crying," Karp says, but his research has a deeper purpose. Exasperated and exhausted parents' reactions to uncontrolled crying include postpartum depression, child and spousal abuse, shaken babies and more. "It’s important because crying kills children."

The Five S's

The Five S's begin with swaddling the baby tightly in a blanket to create a secure, protected feeling and prevent the uncontrolled flailing that babies can find alarming. Next comes the side position, or holding the baby sideways. Though babies should sleep on their backs, they're never on their backs in the uterus, Karp said.

Third is shushing, or making a loud "Shhhh!" noise in the baby's ear to mimic the roaring blood flow they heard in the womb. Karp thinks the "sh" noise may be instinctive, and found that most languages, from romance languages to that of African aborigines, use a "sh" sound or a hissing noise when telling people to be quiet.

Baby whispering for the masses

Karp's method has spread to parents across the country, as demonstrated in this YouTube video where a man calms a shrieking baby in moments using four of the Five S's: swaddling, side position, swaying and shushing. Careful, this baby is loud!

The fourth key to calming a colicky baby is swinging, or more like "jiggling," Karp says. "The movement is related to the movement in the uterus. It's very jiggly in there," he says. "In fact, a lot of pregnant women will tell you the fetus is the most active when the woman is sleeping. You can calm the fetus by just patting your stomach."

Finally, "the icing on the cake" is sucking, either on a pacifier or by nursing. His method has been so successful that his book, The Happiest Baby on the Block, 2002, has become a best seller. Brigades of believers have become "Happiest Baby Certified" and teach Karp's method nationwide. He continued his research and The Happiest Toddler on the Block came out in 2004.

"You get more training to get a driver's license than to have a baby," Karp says. "These are like the owners' manuals for babies and toddlers."

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