How I Rediscovered the Ancient Secrets for Calming Crying Babies - Woodmam

I certainly didn’t realize how easy it was to calm crying babies when I began my pediatric studies in the early 1970s. During my medical-school training at Albert Einstein College of Medicine, my professors taught me that babies scream due to gas pains, so there were two valid approaches for soothing colic. First, try Grandmother’s advice of holding, rocking, and pacifiers. If that failed, try medicine: sedatives (to push a baby into sleep), anti-spasm medicines (to treat stomach cramps), or anti-gas drops (to help get out burps).

By the late 1970s, however, these three medical approaches were called into question. Sedating babies was considered inappropriate. Doctors stopped using anti-spasm medicines after several babies treated with them lapsed into comas and died. And anti-gas drops lost their appeal when research proved them to be no more effective than water.

Although my medical education was excellent, I felt helpless when it came to caring for colicky newborns. As a resident, I worked for three years at Childrens Hospital of Los Angeles, one of the world’s busiest pediatric hospitals. I was fully trained as a “baby doctor,” yet I still couldn’t help distraught parents soothe their babies’ screams. In 1980, as a Fellow in Child Development at the UCLA School of Medicine, my frustration turned into shock and alarm. As a member of the UCLA Child Abuse Team, I treated several severely injured babies whose parents had committed horrible acts of abuse after being unable to calm their infants’ persistent screaming.

I became outraged that our sophisticated medical system didn’t have a single effective solution for babies with this common yet terribly disturbing problem. During the two years of my fellowship, I read everything I could about colic. I was determined to unearth every clue to explain why so many children were plagued by this mysterious condition.

I soon uncovered two facts that turned my alarm into hope.

First, I learned about the profound differences between the brain of a three-month-old baby and that of a newborn. A brilliant paper published in 1977 by one of America’s preeminent pediatricians, Dr. Arthur H. Parmelee, Jr., described how sophisticated and complex the brains of babies become over the first months of life. He illustrated this point by showing pictures of two babies: a fussing newborn and a smiling three-month-old (shown below). Dr. Parmelee observed that most parents-to-be dreamed of giving birth to a smiling baby like the one on the left, while in reality they ended up with a fussy “fetus-like” newborn like the one seen on the right, at least for the first few months.

These pictures powerfully demonstrated the massive developmental leap babies make during the first three months of life as well as the huge gap between how parents in our society expect new babies to look and act and their true behavior and nature.

My second pivotal discovery came when I read about child-rearing in other societies. As I explored the musty shelves of old books and journals stored at the UCLA Medical Library, I was shocked to learn that the colicky screaming that afflicted so many of my patients was absent in the babies of several cultures around the world!

The more I investigated this issue, the more it dawned on me that our culture, advanced in so many ways, was quite backward when it came to understanding the needs of babies. Somehow, somewhere, we had taken a wrong turn. Once I realized our ideas about babies’ crying had been built upon centuries of myth and misconception, the solution to the prehistoric puzzle of why babies cry and how to soothe them suddenly became crystal clear. Our babies are born three months too soon.

I invite you to learn how your baby experiences the world, as well as my program of extremely effective techniques used to calm thousands of my patients over the last twenty years. These techniques may seem a little odd at first, but once you get the hang of them you’ll see how wonderfully simple they are. Parents around the world have successfully used these methods to soothe their babies for thousands of years … and soon, you will, too!

—Harvey Karp
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