In many ways, newborns are not quite ready for the world at birth and need a “fourth trimester” of gentle holding, stroking, shushing and wrapping, says Harvey Karp, MD, assistant professor of pediatrics at the USC School of Medicine. And babies who have colic are especially in need of such soothing, he says.
A baby’s needs during the first three months of life — and not gas, immaturity or temperament — are the main cause of colic, says Dr. Karp. He explains his theory in The Happiest Baby on the Block: The New Way to Calm Crying and Help Your Newborn Sleep Longer (Bantam; $15).
“Although today’s mothers and fathers are well-educated, they are the least-experienced parents in history,” says Dr. Karp. “No wonder the most loving parents sometimes feel pushed to the breaking point by their infant’s screaming.”
Colic Is Common
Researchers have found that 15-20 percent of infants younger than 3 months old cry or fuss for more than 3 hours a day, and 50 percent cry or fuss for 2 hours a day.
“Crying in early infancy is an excellent signal of need, but a poor signal of what is needed,” according to Dr. Karp. It is a graduated system of alerts, with mild cries giving the impression of mild need and intense cries giving the impression of urgent need, he explains.
“The trouble is that some babies skip right past a mild cry into an intense cry, even when their need isn’t urgent. Like a smoke alarm, which blasts out the same sound regardless of whether the toast is burning or the house is in flames, a colicky baby emits the same powerful shriek regardless of whether he is startled, needs to burp or is in true pain. This can be terribly burdensome to new parents.
Soothing Can Calm a Baby
Dr. Karp believes that to calm babies, parents can create a “fourth trimester” of rhythmic stimulation that imitates the womb experience. Recreating the sensory environment of the womb “triggers a profound soothing response — what I call the calming reflex — that halts crying and promotes relaxation,” he says. “This reflex is a virtual ‘off switch’ for crying infants younger than three months.”
Rhythmic stimulation also help most babies sleep an extra one to two hours a night, he says. These calming techniques give baby an extra “trimester” outside the womb. They also may help prevent other troubles associated with colic, such as impaired bonding, breastfeeding challenges, marital stress, depression and abuse, Dr. Karp believes.
Any parent can learn how to activate the calming reflex by using the “5 S’s” of rhythmic stimulation. Here’s how they work.
Swaddling — Wrapping the baby snugly in a receiving blanket provides the continuous contact and support experienced in the womb.
Side/stomach position — Place your baby, while holding her, either on her left side to assist in digestion or on her stomach to provide reassuring support. Once she is happily asleep, you can safely put her in her crib, on her back.
Shushing Sounds — These sounds imitate the continual whooshing sound made by the blood flowing through arteries near the womb. This white noise can be made by a vacuum cleaner, a hair dryer or a fan. Fortunately, you can save the motors on your household appliances by buying a white-noise CD.
Swinging — Newborns are used to the swinging motions experienced in the womb. After the baby is born, this calming motion, so comforting and familiar, is abruptly taken away. “It’s disorienting and unnatural,” says Dr. Karp. Rocking, car rides and other swinging movements all can help.
Sucking — “Sucking has its effects deep within the nervous system and triggers the calming reflex and releases natural chemicals within the brain,” he says. This can be accomplished with breast, bottle, pacifier or even a finger.
Dr. Karp urges patience as you try different calming techniques. Anxious parents, he says, “may make their baby’s crying worse by impatiently jumping from one calming intervention to another” without waiting to see how their baby responds.
Writer’s footnote: When our son was born 13 years ago, Dr. Karp (who was yet to become the best-selling author he is today) was our pediatrician. As nervous first-time parents, my husband and I watched, amazed, as the doctor showed us how to snugly swaddle one-day-old Matthew in a receiving blanket, with his arms at his sides, so that he looked like an adorable little burrito.
Then he taught us to make the shushing sounds that worked better than any tonic. I can still picture my husband walking around our hospital room, making shushing sounds, with our little burrito man on his shoulder — fast asleep.
Kathy Sena is a freelance writer specializing in health issues.