The Happiest Baby on the Block: The New Way to Calm Crying and Help Your Newborn Baby Sleep Longer
Harvey Karp, M.D.
Published May 28, 2002
267 pages (paperback)
When you’re visibly pregnant, you get bombarded with lots and lots of unsolicited parenting advice. At my last visit to the dentist, my hygienist tucked a post-it into the little baggie with my free toothbrush and floss that told me I had to read a certain sleep schedule book (a little independent research showed that the practices suggested in that book are a bit extreme and not condoned by most pediatricians).
But not all advice you receive is unsolicited and unhelpful. As I’ve gotten closer and closer to baby time, there’s one resource that keeps getting mentioned by parents I trust and respect: The Happiest Baby on the Block. The title is cheesy and, frankly, so is the presentation of information . . . but many young parents I know swear by its practices. The gist of author/pediatrician Harvey Karp’s theory is this: human babies are born too soon (thanks to their stupidly large heads). In contrast to other mammals, like ponies and fawns and lambs, that pop out ready to walk in mere minutes, human babies can’t even hold their own heads up.
For the first several months, babies are kind of miserable and don’t know how to manage in the outside world. They’re used to the warmth and security of the womb . . . and they want it back! The solution, according to Karp? Provide your baby a “fourth trimester.” The hours of uncontrollable (and inconsolable) crying? The “Witching Hour”? Colic? They can all be handled with adherence to the “Cuddle Cure,” which turns on a baby’s calming reflex by creating a womblike atmosphere.
The comforts of the uterus can be simulated, Karp believes, with a combination of “The 5 S’s”:
- Swaddling (wrapping your baby up tightly, so she can’t flail);
- Side/Stomach position (holding her on her side or stomach, so she feels more secure—babies sometimes experience a falling reflex when held on their backs);
- Shhhhing (loud “shhhhh”ing that imitates the bodily noises—like the rush of blood through veins—that babies heard constantly while in utero);
- Swinging (“rhythmic, monotonous, jiggling movement”); and
- Sucking (on a breast, bottle, finger, or pacifier).
The above synopsis is really all there is to making your baby the happiest baby on the block. . . which begs the question: WHY is this book over 250 pages long?!
The book aims at being easy to digest. It has cartoons, it has lists, it has anecdotes, it has charts (some, like the chart comparing the abilities of four-day-old versus four-month-old babies, are pretty interesting). Each chapter begins with a “Main Points” section with a bulleted overview. All of these features contribute to the book’s length (there is filler galore among those 250 pages).
But what it also has a lot of are two very annoying things: 1) repetition and 2) unnecessary information. This book is huge on burying the lead. Part One of the book is called “Look Who’s Squawking: Why Babies Cry—And Why Some Cry So Much” (yes, this cutesy/conversational/annoying tone is, unfortunately, typical of the book), and it is largely useless. There are chapters like “Crying: Our Babies’ Ancient Survival Tool” and “The Top Five Theories of Colic and Why They Aren’t Right” that I should have just skipped. If I already had an inconsolable newborn, I would never have gotten to the heart of the book; I would have abandoned it during the boring, useless, repetitious filler of Part One.
Beginning with Chapter 8 (page 105), Karp finally begins to go into detail about each of the “5 S’s,” providing one chapter for each “S.” There are helpful step-by-step drawings of how to swaddle your baby. There is a list of the top ten ways to use motion to calm your fussy baby. There are helpful pointers on pacifier use. All of the specific information on the “5 S’s” is presented in a digestible, easily skimmable manner (lists, call-out boxes, charts, drawings, etc.). These chapters are a great resource—they are what I will return to when my little one arrives. But you shouldn’t have to wade through 100 pages to get to them.
Appendix A, “Red Flags and Red Alerts: When You Should Call the Doctor,” is also a helpful resource for first-time moms and dads. It tells you the ten symptoms that your doctor will look for to determine whether your baby’s crying is a sign of something more serious. It’s good information to know.
Bottom line: There’s a lot of nonessential filler included in the book. But, if you are willing to skip/skim through that, the book is worthwhile for the helpful info and pointers it contains.
The hype: I had multiple friends recommend this book to me over the course of a couple weeks. One friend (and father of three) proclaimed that none of his kids had suffered from colic and credited this book. Another friend (who actually recommended the DVD—see more about that below) said that The Happiest Baby on the Block saved her marriage. Apparently, Dr. Karp is legit.
Who should read it: Part Two of this book is a useful resource. If you’re a soon-to-be parent, I would recommend you read Chapter One, which introduces Karp’s theory, and then skip straight to the meat, which begins in Chapter 8. Everything in between is just very repetitious filler that you can skip.
Already in the throes of parenthood? Skip the book and opt for the DVD instead. It’s only a couple bucks more than the book ($14 v. $12), is much quicker than the book, and is easier to digest. It’s a much better resource for someone who doesn’t have time to wade through 260 pages of repetitive text. Want to read along with me? Review of these books are coming soon:
- Loteria by Mario Alberto Zambrano (one of the School Library Journal Best Books 2013; a Booklist Top 10 First Novels 2013; a West Book Award Finalist for 2014; an International Latino Book Award Finalist for 2014; a 2014 Finalist for the John Gardner Fiction Book Award
- How to Start a Fire by Lisa Lutz (an Indie Next List Pick for May 2015)