Body Wise

Babies Have Crying ‘Off Switch’
If colic makes you want to scream, try 5 calming techniques.

by Kathy Sena

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 UCLA School of Medicine.

A baby’s needs during the first three months of life — and not gas, immaturity or temperament — are the main cause of colic, Karp explains. Colic is defined as crying that lasts more than three hours a day, more than three days a week or more than three weeks.

“Although today’s mothers and fathers are well educated, they are the least-experienced parents in history,” he says. “No wonder the most loving parents sometimes feel pushed to the breaking point by their infant’s screaming.”

Researchers have found that 15-20 percent of infants younger than 3 months old cry or fuss for more than three hours a day, and 50 percent cry or fuss for two hours a day. Dr. Karp explains his theory in The Happiest Baby on the Block: The New Way to Calm Crying and Help Your Newborn Baby Sleep Longer (Bantam, $14).

In a recent presentation at the American Academy of Pediatrics’ national conference, he noted that a fourth trimester of rhythmic stimulation activates a baby’s calming reflex. This reflex is “a virtual ‘off switch’ for crying in infants younger than three months,” he says, and any parent can learn how to activate it through five S’s: swaddling, side/stomach positioning, shushing, swinging and sucking.

These activities mimic babies’ experiences during their months inside the uterus and help most babies sleep an extra one to two hours a night, he says. The techniques also may help prevent other troubles associated with colic, such as impaired bonding, breastfeeding challenges, marital stress, depression and abuse, Dr. Karp adds.

Calming Techniques
Here’s how the five S’s 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 in the form of a vacuum cleaner, a hair dryer, a fan, etc. 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 Karp. Rocking, car rides, and other swinging movements can help.

Sucking. “Sucking has its effects deep within the nervous system and triggers the calming reflex and releases natural chemicals within the brain,” says Dr. Karp. This can be accomplished with breast, bottle, pacifier or even a finger.

A Faulty Alarm
“Crying in early infancy is an excellent signal of need, but a poor signal of what is needed,” Dr. Karp writes in an article for Contemporary Pediatrics magazine. “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.

“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.”

He adds, “Recreating the sensory milieu of the womb calms newborns not because they’re nostalgic for the “good life” they had in the womb but because it triggers a profound soothing response — what I call the calming reflex — that halts crying and promotes relaxation.”

Dr. Karp urges patience as you try different calming techniques. “Anxious mothers may make their baby’s crying worse by impatiently jumping from one calming intervention to another without paying attention to their baby’s response and acting in a contingent fashion,” he says.

Kathy Sena is a freelance wirter and a frequent contributor to MetroKids.