There’s a weird thing that can happen when you’re pregnant: Even though you know childbirth is just one day (ish), and parenting lasts a lifetime, you spend the vast majority of your time thinking about and preparing for labor and delivery. I’ve certainly done this — I’m 34 weeks along and, so far, I’ve read four books about childbirth, taken 15 hours of childbirth classes, and spent countless others listening to childbirth-focused hypnosis tapes. I’ve even changed my workouts to focus more on squats, deep core exercises, and pelvic floor work, all to ready my body for labor day. When it comes to preparing for new-parenthood? Let’s see… I registered for baby gear, bought a crib off Craigslist, and asked a few fellow flat-chested friends if they actually managed to make any milk once their babies were born (they all did!). So, not that much. But like so many nervous parents-to-be, there’s one bit of motherhood prep I didn’t even hesitate to do: purchase and devour Dr. Harvey Karp’s famous baby-soothing how-to guide, The Happiest Baby On The Block.
The book, which celebrates its 15th anniversary this week, has taught new parents everywhere about the concept of the fourth trimester (essentially, human babies are born about three months too early to truly be “ready” for the outside world) and the “5 S’s” (swaddling, side/stomach position, shushing, swinging, and sucking, all of which help calm a new baby by mimicking the conditions inside the womb). And in the last year or so, Dr. Karp has made headlines again, this time by co-creating the SNOO, a high-tech bassinet that takes care of three out of five S’s for you (swaddling, shushing, and swinging) so your 0- to 6-month-old — and you — can sleep easier. (If you haven’t watched videos of fussy newborns drifting off to sleep in a SNOO, please remedy this problem immediately.)
Dr. Karp, who insisted I call him Harvey, was kind enough to agree to an interview — and to let me test a SNOO when my own little one is born this summer — and, feeling like I’d hit the parent-to-be jackpot, I jumped at the chance. Read ahead for a condensed version of my conversation with Harvey.
There’s something you’ve talked about that I relate to so much: how changing family dynamics have made things a lot harder for modern parents. Can you explain?
“In the last 100 years, we’ve seen a record-scratch precipitous change in parenting. We used to live in extended families — you’d live in a small neighborhood your entire life, you knew your neighbors and your environment. Now, we’ve migrated away from our families. On top of that, in the past, you would have taken care of 5, 10, 20 babies growing up, and now people are growing up never having touched a baby before having their own. That’s bizarre beyond belief from an evolutionary point of view … Parents need to pat themselves on the back, because they’re doing a job that no one else did throughout history. We may not have to wash our clothes by the river, but we have challenges no one else has faced.”
Totally: I’ve never changed a diaper.
“Fortunately, it’s not rocket science. It’s more like Groundhog Day: Every day is like the day before, so you learn it really fast — that’s not a problem. What is a problem is that there are some skills that are counterintuitive and may even seem wrong at first blush, but are incredibly valuable. We’re uber-educated and analytics-based, so people go to websites and read blogs and try to get the best information and try to figure out what sounds right to them, but it turns out that taking care of babies and toddlers is not so much information-based as it is skill-based, and those skills take a bit more than just the written word.
“That’s why when it comes to The Happiest Baby, I always recommend the DVD — I don’t really recommend the book as the primary way of learning these things. These are skills you learn by watching. Especially dads! Dads are the best baby calmers in the family. We’re terrible at breastfeeding but very good at baby calming and swaddling.”
You’re a big fan of swaddling, but there’s some controversy around that practice. Can you explain what that’s about, and what your perspective is?
“Before the time of the Constitution, all across the Western world [swaddling] was used as a way of calming and protecting babies. And then came the Enlightenment and Rousseau and the Declaration of Independence, and we said our babies should not be born into bondage — no animal wraps its baby up, and babies should be free. So we stopped swaddling, and babies started to cry more and more, but we had a new discovery that treated colic. It was called opium, and it was still being used when I did my medical training in the 1970s. Opium worked, but it also killed some babies who overdosed, so we realized that [giving babies opium] was a bad thing to do.
“What I came to realize is that babies are born 3 to 4 months before they’re ready to be in the world, and they need to be held, rocked, and shushed — you need to imitate the womb for the first several months. This leads to a lot of confusion: People think babies are going to get spoiled, which would be true for a 9-12-month-old baby, but not a new baby. So giving up swaddling was a terrible thing to do, so I started recommending it in 2002 when Happiest Baby came out.
“Of course, there are risks that you have to understand. You want to swaddle them safely and correctly. [Think about] the car seat: It was controversial in the beginning, because car seats kill babies if they’re not installed correctly. In the late 1970s, some people said we should stop using carseats because so many people were using them incorrectly. Others said we needed to educate everyone about how to use them. And we’ve saved thousands of babies’ lives and prevented countless injuries, even though 50 percent of people still don’t use car seats correctly. It’s the same exact thing with swaddling: It helps to reduce crying and increase sleep, which helps with breastfeeding, and reduces your temptation to bring the baby in bed with you, which is a serious risk, and to put them to sleep on their stomach, which is another risk. The goal is to swaddle correctly and safely so they get the benefit without the risk.”
We may not have to wash our clothes by the river, but we have challenges no one else has faced.
Dr. Harvey Karp
A common theme in your work is preventing sleep deprivation, which I’m definitely concerned about. Other than just general misery, what’s the problem with new parents and sleep deprivation?
“On average, parents get about 6 or 6.5 hours of sleep with new babies, which doesn’t sound too bad, but it’s broken up into tiny little pieces. It’s hard to feel rested when you’re being awakened every 2 hours, it takes an hour to feed the baby and then 15-20 minutes to rock it back to sleep, and then you’re staring at the clock.
“When you’re tired, you have even less resilience for dealing with other stressors: breastfeeding, crying. It becomes the straw that breaks the camel’s back. A study from the University of Pennsylvania on college students showed that if you sleep just 6 hours a night for 10 days in a row, it gives you the same mental impairment as someone who is legally drunk. And of course, a lot of moms are sleep-deprived from pregnancy already. This creates a concept I call drunk parenting.
“Where this gets dangerous is people bringing their babies into bed with them. Of course, most people will skate by without a problem, but 3,700 babies die each year in the United States, and 70 percent of those babies die in bed with their parents.
“There are other reasons sleep deprivation is a problem: It leads to mood disorders and marital stress. It’s the chief trigger for postpartum depression. It leads to loss of confidence in breastfeeding and lower milk production. It leads to car accidents and unsafe sleeping practices.
“Most doctors will tell you, if you have a fussy baby, you just have to wait for it to get better — a lot of babies aren’t good sleepers, and we’ll wait and then cry it out and do sleep training. You’re telling me we can’t figure it out? That’s the challenge I set up for myself, and said, of course we can do better. We can reduce crying and improve sleep dramatically by following the natural cues that babies have in the womb. It’s actually weird that any of them sleep well if we don’t set up their environment correctly.”
Okay, so let’s talk about the SNOO, which it seems like everyone is obsessed with. Has the response been what you expected?
“It’s been way more than I expected. Normally with this kind of new technology, you’ll sell to the early adopters in New York, San Francisco, or Los Angeles. But so many people had confidence in Happiest Baby — and so many people are sleep-deprived — we’ve sold all across America. And all of the reviews: People are feeling such relief from being able to have this help.
“What’s been interesting is that everybody is talking about how expensive the price is [$1,160]. When we were doing the initial testing, we asked people [who were about to try the SNOO] how much they’d pay for it, and they’d say $200 or $300. But when we took it away from them, they wanted to pay us $3,000 or $4,000 for it — it helped their life so much.
“We like to joke that the SNOO is like having your own night nurse, but it’s available to you 24/7. And it’s better, because the SNOO can’t fall asleep. Plus, a night nurse is going to cost you $200 or $300 per day, but with the SNOO you get similar help, and if you use it for the first six months, it costs $6 per day.”
Any chance there will be a more affordable model available at some point?
“It’s possible. All hardware when it first comes out is not what we call cost-optimized in terms of manufacturing, so we’ll be improving that over time, and adding new features. The goal is absolutely to get it into more people’s hands. What we might even end up doing is renting them, kind of like people do with breast pumps. The goal would be to have health studies to convince employers and insurance companies to subsidize it. Once we have those studies, which will be over the next couple of years, then I think we’ll be able to get support from insurance companies to reduce the price or to rent at a reduced price.”
What do you think parents-to-be could be doing before baby arrives to better prepare? I’m pretty aware that I’ve been reading and prepping a ton for childbirth but not very much for what comes after, but I’m not sure what I should be focusing on.
“Imagine you’re speeding down the road, and there’s a big paper barrier ahead. You can’t see beyond it. You burst through the barrier and get to the other side. You know where you’re heading, but you have no visibility. Even people who read about [having a baby] and study, it’s hard for them to get their minds around it until it happens.
“One thing you can do, though, is to prepare extra food for yourself — freeze it, figure out how you’ll do it, maybe you’ll order out. But you’ll be so busy taking care of the baby. And when people come over and say they want to help, have a list of jobs they can do: Do the laundry, make the bed, clean up in the kitchen. People want to help, they don’t just want to sit there and talk to you, they want to give something to you. And you’ll pay them back someday. And that’s not just over the first week but the first few months that you need that type of support.
“The same goes for family: If your family is going to visit, you may want to take the first week on your own and then have the in-laws come after a week or two. Because come the second, third, fourth week, you get really tired and especially appreciate the help.
“And get a SNOO! It’s not just to help parents, but to train the baby to be a better sleeper and prevent health and learning issues down the road. It’s not just an investment in getting sleep — it’s a longer-term investment.”
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