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Dr. Karp answers your burning questions

Published on: December 30, 2013

0110_harvey_karp1By Maria Bellos Fisher

Dr. Harvey Karp, bestselling author of The Happiest Baby on the Block and The Happiest Toddler on the Block, is coming to Seattle to share his wisdom with local families and child care professionals. Many parents credit Dr. Karp with keeping them sane with his “5 S’s” (swaddling, side/stomach position, shushing, swinging and sucking) technique that triggers a baby’s “calming reflex.” Karp’s technique, described in The Happiest Baby on the Block, is credited with putting even the fussiest babies to sleep.

In The Happiest Toddler on the Block, Karp likens toddlers to cavemen, and recommends that parents treat them as primitive beings, especially during tantrums. Karp explains that toddler’s brains are unbalanced. Toddlers’ immature left brains, which control conversation, patience and logic, are constantly overpowered by the right brain, which is the center of impulse, emotion and interpreting non-verbal communication. Karp’s techniques teach parents to treat their screaming toddlers like little cavemen, to get through to their dominant right brain.

We asked for your burning questions for Dr. Karp, and he answered them for you. Here’s what he had to say.

Happy Babies

Q: What happens when you’ve tried all five S’s on your baby and it still isn’t calming her?

A: First, try common sense things. Offer her food and change her diaper. Then swaddle her. Swaddling is the cornerstone of the five S’s. If she’s not properly swaddled, the other S’s won’t be effective.

Infant crying ramps up at four weeks of age and peaks at six to eight weeks. Parents have to do [the method] correctly for it to work. Take the “calming reflex” versus the knee reflex. If you hit the knee in the right place, it will jump out. If you hit too low or too softly, there’s no reflex. Ninety-five percent of the time, if the five S’s are not working, they’re not being done right. Sometimes the baby needs a more intense shooshing sound. My white noise CD has specially engineered sounds on it, that help parents make sure they’re doing the five S’s right. If you are doing the five S’s correctly and the baby’s still not calming, then she needs a medical evaluation.

Q: What if my baby gets too strong to be swaddled?

A: In Mongolia, they swaddle babies until they’re 12 months old. Effective swaddling depends on the size of the blanket, the shape – it must be square -- and the technique used. If it’s halfway done, it’s a problem. It’s not about the infant’s strength.

One of the wonderful things about the five S’s is that men are better baby calmers than women. Swaddling is an engineering job. They use their spatial relations skills and they shoosh louder. Dads are an important tool for calming babies. In Seattle, Bernie Dorsey (of the Parent Trust Organization) does “Conscious Fathering” talks where he uses the five S’s. We go to military establishments to teach the [5 S’s] method to dads.

Q: I’m still swaddling my seven-month-old (with one arm out for movement) because he sleeps better than when he’s not swaddled and squirms around. Should I be working to get him to sleep without the swaddle? I’m hesitant to change a good thing!

A: Swaddling is an important tool. Use the white noise CD with your baby too. It’s difficult for babies to sleep in a quiet room. At 7 months, teething, hunger or gas can interrupt sleep. The white noise turns on the calming reflex because it keeps the baby from being bothered by other things. Using the CD, within a week, you should be able to wean him off swaddling.

Happy Toddlers

Q: How do I get my 6-year-old daughter to feel comfortable sleeping on her own?

A: She needs a strong sleep routine at bedtime. There are a couple of things you can do. Start the routine an hour before bed. Reduce the amount of light in the room; turn on soothing music or white noise; engage her in a quiet activity that doesn’t use a lot of light – not a DVD or TV show. No roughhousing -- give her a soft landing. Use my “bedtime sweet talk” method. Review the next day – what’s going on and what she’ll do, to make her look forward to it. Then turn on some white noise for her to listen to while she falls asleep.

Q: How do I get a toddler to eat at mealtimes?

A: Toddlers are like little cavemen. They’re primitive and uncivilized. Our job is to civilize them. Think of your 3-year-old as a caveman living 50,000 years ago. It’s like Tarzan coming to dinner. You have to have appropriate expectations. Don’t expect him to eat a lot. At mealtime, he needs direct attention to keep him interested during his 10 minutes of feeding. Make it fun. Make broccoli trees; arrange his peas into a happy face – keep him interested. Have modest expectations. If he eats a modest amount of food, he should feel like he succeeded. For each success, give him a gold star or a sticker as an incentive. If at dinnertime, he eats and earns a star, he’ll feel good and will cooperate.

Keep in mind that some battles you can win and some you can’t. You can’t force food down. Be pleasant and festive. Make it fun.

Dr. Karp is scheduled to speak at the Red Lion Hotel in Seattle Thursday, Sept. 15 at 7 p.m. Tickets are $20-$35, available at Brown Paper Tickets, and all proceeds benefit Postpartum Support International of Washington.

Maria Bellos Fisher is the mom of two toddlers, a freelance writer and blogger. Visit her family relationships blog, Hereditary Insanity.

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