secrets to sound sleep


q + a with Dr. Harvey Karp, pediatrician and author of The Happiest Baby on the Block

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For over 25 years, Dr. Harvey Karp has brought calming assurance and restful nights of sleep to parents and their infants worldwide. His 5-prong approach to soothing a fussy baby includes our personal favorite: swaddling! We sat down with the baby whisperer himself to learn the secrets to a sound sleep for baby (and you).



Q: What are the 5 S’s, and why are they so effective?

A: The 5 S’s bring together several baby calming tricks that smart parents from around the world have used for thousands of years. I found most of these parenting pearls fit into 5 steps: Swaddle, Side-Stomach Position, Shush, Swing and Suck. The 5 S’s work so well because they imitate the sensations babies love in the womb! Babies are born with a calming reflex, which probably evolved to soothe fussy fetuses—to keep them from squirming into a breech or sideways position and getting stuck in the birth canal. Like the knee reflex (triggered with a precise whack of the hammer) the calming reflex only works to soothe crying…if it’s done right. But once a parent gets the hang of the 5 S’s, they truly work like a charm!

Q: From a pediatrician’s standpoint, why is swaddling at the center of the 5 S’s?

A: Every time fussy babies jerk or startle, they just get…fussier! Snug wrapping reduces involuntary arm movement and helps focus a baby so that they notice the other S’s, which flip on the calming reflex. Plus, touch is our most ancient, calming sense. Swaddling reminds your little one of the constant embrace she enjoyed in the womb. So, even if your baby resists the swaddling at first, stick with it! It will help so much over the next 4-5 months to keep her happy and well rested.

Q: Does it matter what order you do the 5 S’s in, or is it more about the sum of the parts?

A: To quickly soothe your crying baby you might initially roll him to the stomach and add a strong shush and tiny jiggles, and then you’d add swaddling, which restricts the baby’s flailing. (Feel free to experiment until you find the winning combo for your baby.) The third and fourth S’s—shushing and swinging—break the fussing cycle by fully turning on the reflex. And I like to think of the fifth S—sucking—as the icing on the cake! It’s the final, delicious layer that can guide your baby into a deep level of relaxation.

Q: There are many different ways that “shushing” can be interpreted. What kind of white noise works best?

A: There are actually two types of white noise—high-pitch and low-pitch—and they have totally opposite effects! Parents intuitively use the right pitch to soothe crying. They start by making a loud, high-pitch shhhh, which grabs a baby’s attention and helps “snap” him out of the upset. As the baby calms, parents gradually lower the pitch and volume of their shushing to help relax him into sleep. And this kind of low-pitch, rumbly white noise helps snoozing babies stay asleep. (For the first time ever, advanced technology—our SNOO Smart Sleeper—does the same thing! It automatically responds to your baby’s cries and delivers the right level of white noise at the right time.)

Q: Can you explain how the side or stomach position works to calm a baby?

A: Before birth, your fetus never laid flat on his back. Lying on the side, curled into the fetal position—head down, spine rounded, knees pressed against his belly—activates positions sensors in his muscles and inner ear to keep his calming reflex turned on. Even adults feel more serene when they’re coiled into the fetal position! But remember, although the side/stomach position is very calming, it is not safe for sleep (it increases the SIDS risk). So it’s great to use the side position to calm the bedtime fussies, but always lay your baby down on the back for sleep.

Q: If your baby won’t take a pacifier or suck his/her thumb, is there another way to implement “sucking”? Or does it simply mean that this S doesn’t work for your baby?

A: Of course, you can offer the breast or the bottle (nutritive sucking) to calm your baby, too. But the love of sucking is an inherited trait, so if it’s not your baby’s favorite S, that’s okay—you have 4 other S’s to turn to for soothing!

Q: Tell us more about the “Jell-O head jiggle” move.

A: The easiest way to do the calming “Jell-O head jiggle” is to:
1) swaddle your baby
2) place him on your lap
3) prop your wrists on your knees and rest his head in your loosely cupped hands
4) wiggle your knees back and forth.

The goal is to have his head jiggle on your hands like Jell-O on a plate. This is the same movement she experienced inside your belly when you hustled up the stairs or bounced in an exercise class. She loves it!

Q: Are there elements of the 5 S’s that can still be implemented as your child gets older?

A: As the 4th trimester ends, the 5 S’s can still benefit your baby, but their power for turning on the calming reflex lessens and your infant will need the S’s less for sleep cues. For sleep safety, you’ll need to stop swaddling your baby once he can roll over which usually happens around 4 months (unless he’s in SNOO, which can be used for up to 6 months, thanks to its unique clip-in swaddle which prevents rolling.) However, I recommend using white noise for up to a year! It can improve your little one’s sleep during a noisy night, through growth spurts or while he’s teething. Plus, allowing pacifier use to continue into the toddler years can be a great stress reducer for some kids. Most are ready to wean off the binky by 6 months, although many need 2-4 years (and pacis are better than thumb sucking, which can cause buck teeth).

Q: Is it true that men are better swaddlers?

A: Ha! I’m not one to stereotype genders, so let’s just say that the best swaddlers are skilled in (and enjoy) engineering-type tasks.

Q: What’s the one piece of advice you would give to a new parent?

A: Prioritize sleep! It’s the best thing you can do for your health, your baby’s health and your family’s well-being. (It even helps new moms lose that baby weight!) And don’t be shy about asking for (or paying for) the help you need to get it!
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