Tuesday, December 1, 2009

November Book Review

*************************************************************Book: "The Happiest Baby on the Block"

Author: Dr. Harvey Karp.

Why I Chose It: Sure, we live on a rural block with relatively few babies, but the title of this book still appeals to my inherent and cultural competitiveness. Any chance Amari becomes a superlative of any adjective is sure to find its way onto my bookshelf. I first heard about Dr. Karp during our birthing classes in October. One of the DVDs we were sent home with was a hands on "How To" version of his recommended techniques. I didn't get a chance to see it, but when Carrie related the premise, I was intrigued enough to buy the book. I found a copy for less than three dollars at Half.com, and I got my money's worth the first time Amari had a meltdown.

The main idea: Babies are born too soon. That's right, even the ones that are born late are born too early according to Dr. Karp's theory of the missing Fourth Trimester. I've always loved stuff about missing things or unaddressed phenomena, so this was right up my alley. "The Sixth Sense," "Close Encounters of the Third Kind," "Remo Williams in the Eight Dimension" - all awesome, too. Although the book focuses on describing, explaining, and offering solutions for colicky babies, the techniques for triggering the "calming reflex" are useful for all newborns.

Synopsis: Dr. Karp begins by normalizing an infant's tears. He describes them as having a three word vocabulary - whimpering, crying, and shrieking - then offers some visual cues that can help us determine which means what. Personally, I've found that the visual cues along with diaper checking help a lot more than trying to guess what the noises mean. I also recall a research study finding that less than fifty percent of mothers could identify their child's needs based on the sound of their cries alone. That sounds a lot like flipping a coin to me.

Next, Dr. Karp introduces the dreaded "C" word - colic, "a CRYsis for the whole family." I always thought colic was something like infant plague or a canine disease that babies could get. Turns out it's pretty common, but there's still little understanding as to the exact cause. Dr. Karp offers a rundown of the top colic theories - tummy troubles, maternal anxiety, immature brains, and challenging temperaments - and then systematically demonstrates why none of them can be the sole cause. Karp compares colic theories to the story of the four blind wise men who are asked to describe the true nature of an elephant. As each man touches a different part of the animal, they offer different descriptions, but none of them completely captures the beast.

Putting all the pieces of the different theories together, Dr. Karp proposes a missing Fourth Trimester as the eclectic cause of colic. The missing Fourth trimester is a product of millions of years of evolution. Prior to us becoming bipeds, our prehistoric ancestors were knuckle walkers much like our primate relatives. In addition, we had smaller brains back then so babies did not have to be evicted early and could come to term in the womb. As time passed, however, and we began to walk on our feet, use tools, and learn new talents, our little brains began to grow. Evolutionary mutations had to occur to ensure that big brained babies could still exit the birth canal, and ultimately one of those biological adjustments was an early birth. While Dr. Karp did an excellent job of explaining the development of this missing trimester, I thought he did a less adequate job of justifying why it is the best explanation for colic. Nonetheless, it has been the techniques rather than the theory that have already helped me through many challenging moments with Amari.

So what does this missing Fourth Trimester mean? It means that when babies are born they are bombarded with too much stimulation - external and internal - lights, noises, gas pains, hunger, etc. Our job as parents becomes easing their transition for the first 3-4 months by offering them what Karp calls a "Womb with a view." Karp describe examples of other cultures where women hold their babies almost constantly for the first three months, offering them milk and comfort whenever they signal for it. He says that infants in these cultures almost never cry which, in the face of recent personal experience, sounds both unrealistic and awesome.

Dr. Karp then gets to the heart of the book - the reflexes our babies are born with and how we can activate their "calming reflex" to help them through their very naked feeling Fourth Trimester. The rest of the book offers a detailed description of what Dr. Karp has coined as "The Five S's" to calm a crying baby. They are as follows: Swadling, Side-Stomach, Shhh-ing, Swaying, and Sucking. The first two prepare the baby for the final three, which biologically activate the calming reflex. Included throughout the book are first-hand successes and frequently asked questions regarding these techniques, and Dr. Karp does an excellent job of integrating the stories and addressing the concerns, including how to ween your baby off the Five S's once the Fourth Trimester is over.

Practical Application: The Five S's are a lifesaver. Swaddling seems to be common knowledge, but there are excellent descriptions of how to wrap an infant to minimize movement and reduce over-stimulation. This begins the process. Although she sometimes resists initially, when I swaddle Amari correctly and turn her on her side, I effectively disengaged the Moro reflex, which is triggered when she's on her back and makes her feel like she is falling. Once I've done those two things, she is ready for the other S's. When Carrie watched the DVD, she learned that the volume of the blood rushing around the uterus is comparable to a vacuum cleaner (Karp demonstrates this), so when we Shhhh our babies, we don't need to be quiet ourselves. It may feel counter-intuitive to be loudly Shhh-ing, but Dr. Karp recommends that we lean in 2-4 inches from our baby's ear and match the volume of their cries until they stop. He cautions that although this may happen instantly, it may also take a minute or two for the baby's overstimulated nervous system to respond. More often than not, my Shhh-ing has been instantly gratified by Amari's whole body relaxing, her tears shutting off like a faucet, and some internal movement and pain relief. After that, swaying her back and forth, offering a pacifier or a finger for her to suck on, and she slips into a complete feeling of safety - a warm, cozy, womb with a view.

Overall reaction/recommendation: I highly recommend this book. It's an easy read with a personal touch. It offers simple, practical, easy-to-follow techniques that I've used every single day so far. The Five S's are easy to remember, easy to do, and highly effective. Sure, I've had friends look at me like I'm crazy when loudly Shhhh my crying daughter, sometimes they even make fun of me later, but I know from experience that ridicule is only the second stage that truth passes through - right after it is violently opposed and just before it is accepted as fact. If you feel as though you're running low on effective tools to calm your baby's crying or you want to know more about why babies are so sensitive in their vulnerable youth, grab a copy of this book. I know you won't regret it.

1 comment:

  1. Carrie,
    Your writing is so articulate, poignant, exactly what we (soon to be parents) need to hear, and deeply touching - Thank you! My husband and I love the 5 S's too and am glad to hear that it may be of service in our early days of parent-hood. I am truly excited to be on this journey at a time when so much light is coming through, and inspired by what you share on this blog.