Dr. Harvey Karp and The Happiest Baby, Inc. have just rereleased DVDs of “The Happiest Baby on the Block” and “The Happiest Toddler on the Block”—both based on bestselling books by the same name that the popular pediatrician published in 2002 and 2004.
Like the doctor himself, who begins by saying that these DVDs are no substitute for a pediatric visit, I’ll begin with a disclaimer. That’s because “how to” videos of this nature are advocating methods that, if not done correctly, could perhaps cause damage. You’ve heard of Shaken Baby Syndrome, I’m sure, and so it might be confusing to some viewers who perhaps don’t have a higher level of education to see Dr. Karp advocating “shaking” as one of his infant calming steps. And curiously, the question about “Can you shake too hard?” is included in a bonus feature, instead of being edited into the main film.
So my disclaimer is that I’m not responsible for anything that Dr. Karp advocates and I’m passing on to you. Or rather, summarizing, for you’ll have to buy the book or DVD to learn the details.
His techniques will strike most people as not very new at all, except for one or two things taken to what many might think is an extreme. They’re based on the simple (and quite logical) belief that the first three months of an infant’s life are the equivalent of a fourth trimester, and that therefore calming strategies ought to replicate conditions inside the womb.
Karp calls his method the “Five S’s”: Swaddling, side/stomach position, shushing, swinging (and jiggling), and sucking.
Now, swaddling is nothing new. If you’ve already had a baby you’ll recall it’s standard practice for most maternity wards. Karp shows how to get a tight wrap and basically suggests that a parent should start with swaddling and go through as many S’s as it takes to calm the baby down.
The second S is side/stomach position, and Karp suggests holding the swaddled baby on its right side, angled slightly so the baby’s head is pointed down. Most parents hold their babies in the cradle position or else hold the baby with its head over their shoulder so they can pat it on the back. Here is where Karp most deviates from common practice, and every step features Karp with a crying baby showing the parents how the technique works. And on camera, it does.
Lullabies and gentle “shushing” are also time-honored techniques, but here’s where the doctor differs again. Instead of a gentle shushing, he sticks his mouth right up to the baby’s ear and shushes with all the rigor of a steam locomotive. Are you kidding me? Are we going to produce a generation of hearing-impaired children if parents follow Karp’s advice? No, he says, arguing that the noise inside the womb is FAR louder than the shushing.
Then there’s “swinging and jiggling,” which is basically motion added to the side/stomach position so that the head especially jiggles. That’s JIGGLES, not SHAKES LIKE CRAZY. And here, I have to say, is where the video has it over the books. In this and other steps there’s no mistaking how it’s done.
Finally (and here’s one that might surprise, given what some doctors have said about pacifiers) there’s Karp’s belief in sucking.
Now, back to the disclaimer. Karp has a horde of parents who’ve tried his methods and swear by them, and that includes celebrities like Madonna and Michelle Pfeiffer, who have endorsed him. But the medical profession being what it is, there are critics as well. Some worry that Karp’s suggestion that a crying baby should be put on its side or stomach might be misinterpreted by new parents to mean they can put the baby in that position for the night. That could prove disastrous, as the entire profession agrees that putting babies to sleep on their backs can reduce the chances of crib death or Sudden Infant Death Syndrome. There are also pediatricians who disagree with his notion of a “calming reflex” that can be turned off like a switch when the baby cries, or with his use of really tight swaddling. So the best thing to do, parents, is to watch a video like this, talk it over with your doctor, try a few things, and do what feels most comfortable.
All I know is, there were moments with each of my six kids when I thought the baby would become hoarse by so much crying, and nothing I did could calm him or her down. Check out the Amazon.com reader responses to this DVD and you’ll see parents who tried Karp’s methods after five hours of non-stop crying, only to have the baby finally quit. Are they believers? Yep.
But I think believers might be tougher to come by with Karp’s follow-up DVD, “The Happiest Toddler on the Block,” which is based on three principles: 1) Your toddler is like a cave man (and not a little adult), 2) The Fast Food Rule (talk to him/her in the businesslike tone of a fast food employee), and 3), employ what he calls “Toddler-ese.”
Karp lost me when I had to watch him do his own version of an angry baby. Angry babies? Hey, maybe there’s money the doctor can make in a video game, too! But I could not see myself lying down next to the tantrum-throwing baby and imitating that tantrum but in a milder way, but by saying to the child how mad you know they are, or how sad, or how whatever. This one you have to see to believe, and I think I’d rather just put him in the naughty chair. But one thing does ring true. “Emotions and learning mix as poorly as oil and water,” and when a child is upset that’s no time to teach him or her a lesson of any kind.
Still, I’m reminded of an instance where my kid threw a tantrum and lay down in the middle of a busy store, refusing to budge. Would Karp have lay down right next to him and started talking in a baby voice (and an angry baby voice) how he knows how upset he is, until the kid settled down? All I know is, I wouldn’t do that. I’d pick the kid up and carry him to the car.
Karp has enough of a reputation and following that, Like Dr. Spock before him, he has to be taken seriously. But again, discuss this with your pediatrician or someone at a free clinic before you launch into these methods. What can it hurt to get a second opinion?
If nothing else, watching “The Happiest Baby in the World” gives parents as few ideas they might vary on their own to where they do things that are more within their natural comfort zone. And seeing other parents in their predicament is always a much-needed boost when sleep-deprivation sets in and you’re starting to feel martyred . . . and hopeless. The cheery music and baby montage are also a nice “welcome to the club” for brand-new parents who can’t wait for the happy day.
Run-time is 128 minutes, but it really doesn’t feel that long.
For a DVD, the video presentation is really sharp. Edges have some nice delineation, colors are bright and well saturated, and it almost approaches the look of a digital camera. There’s nothing here to distract the viewer from the messages. “The Happiest Baby” is presented in 1.33:1 aspect ratio.
The audio is a clear-and-vibrant Dolby Digital 2.0 that, like the video presentation, is solid enough so that it doesn’t detract from the content.
Like the toddler volume, which includes Karp’s responses to 26 frequently asked questions, this one comes with what one can only assume are 25 outtakes. But again, I wonder whether the segment on shaking shouldn’t be included in the main presentation rather than included as an afterthought.
Madonna swears by this guy, and the DVDs prove what the bestselling books cannot: that the calming techniques actually work. Now, whether they’re good for babies, in the short or long term, that’s another question that remains to be answered. Given all the bad parenting out there, I'd have to say that Karp's methods should help a lot of people who are being driven crazy by crying babies. And that makes it worth getting.