Wednesday, June 18, 2008

The Science Of Sleep (Or, Sleep 'Till Brooklyn)

If only we knew. Just a few days ago we learned that our baby likes to sleep, and, when given the chance, will do so for hours on end at night.

This is a revelation. As readers of this blog will attest, we were convinced that our child was that rare creature that not only doesn’t need, but in fact hates sleep.

Not true. We were just doing it wrong.

Yes, you can do sleep wrong.

This is all a preamble on the way to saying that we finally watched the video for, and read the book The Happiest Baby On The Block, by Harvey Karp, M.D.

The video is almost like a strange, baby-centric magic show, or infomercial. Time after time Karp picks up a crying, crazed newborn works some kind of voodoo, and they fall asleep in seconds, peaceful as, well, babes.

It almost looks staged except I think it would be hard to get newborns to remember how to hit their marks, even if they have an easy time remembering their lines.(“WhAAAAAAAAAAAAAAA!”)

Karp also speaks to some parents during the DVD, and their complaints sounded a whole lot like ours. The baby cries when she’s put down, the baby needs to suckle on Mom before sleep, the baby wakes up all the time; all familiar problems to us, and then some.

Karp even deals with the dreaded C-word, colic.

You know how I wrote that colic is a mysterious condition, where some babies scream all the time, but no one knows for certain why? Well, someone found out why. Colic, it turns out, is a problem of the modern world. Many cultures don’t even have colic, and their babies don’t really cry all that much at all, except when their hungry, or need to have their diaper, or the equivalent changed.

The problem we had was that Stella would have all her needs taken care of, and still cry for hours on end, driving us to the point where it’s a good thing our windows don’t really work, or we’d have jumped.

Constant crying, or colic, is how babies tell their parents that they want to be soothed, which sounds kind of ironic.

The problem, we learned, is that we modern Westerners don’t really know how to soothe babies. The other side of this is that babies not only want to be soothed, but apparently they have an instinct for it.

I know I sound like I’m doing an online infomercial for Karp, but I say all this stuff because I saw it work, on our fussy, eternally hungry, seemingly always crying baby.

There are five “S’s” according to Karp: swaddling, side/stomach, shushing, swinging, and sucking.

Basically our big problem, especially at night, was that we weren’t swaddling Stella well at all.

The problem, initially, was that we didn’t have any swaddling cloth, and didn’t really know where to get any.

Swaddling cloth is important because you need to bind a baby’s arm to their sides for them to quit flailing around in bed and finally get some rest. They flail around so much in sleep that they can even wake up if not bound tight. Clearly we needed to swaddle her, tight.

To remedy this I walked to our local baby supplies store, Boing Boing, and asked what swaddling cloth they had. Boing Boing is super high-end, because, apparently, everyone in Park Slope, Brooklyn is loaded except for us. As a result everything in this store is about as expensive as you will find, anywhere.

The swaddling cloth, for example, was $45 for four pieces of cloth. Sure, it was Egyptian cotton, or organic, or organic Egyptian cotton, or something equally ridiculous. But, c’mon, all that cash for four squares of cloth? I was offended. I walked out, and went downtown to Target.

Target had cheaper stuff, but in the long run it only made us miserable. The swaddlers at Target fastened closed with Velcro. We thought this would do the trick.

It didn’t. The problem was that the Velcro fasteners were set up in such a way that she would bust her arms out in just a few minutes, each and every time, like Houdini. We didn’t know what else to do, or how vital swaddling really is at this point, so we just limped along.

Well, Karp says, swaddling is critical. Babies want to experience the soothing feelings they had in the womb for the first three months of their life, so binding them tight, far from hurting them, is guaranteed to help them calm down, eventually. We didn’t know that, much to our sorrow.

Also, when calming a baby don’t put it on its back. Put it on its side, or stomach, because that’s a more secure feeling. We didn’t know that, either.

Then, and this one was a big surprise, babies like loud white noise, because this is what the womb sounds like. The Sleep Sheep works on this principal, but by itself it won’t really do anything, because the baby has to be swaddled before it can be receptive to the white noise. We didn’t know that.

To provide the white noise you can get your face close to your swaddled, side-resting baby, and go “SHHHHHHH!” kind of loud in its ear, as loud as the baby is crying, kind of like a mean old spinster libarian. Vacuum cleaners, and hair dryers are also things babies like. So, go figure. All this seemed kind of like child abuse to me, shushing a baby so loudly, but, uh, I was wrong.

After you do all this you then gently rock the baby’s head back and forth so it kind of lolls from side to side. I SAID GENTLY! You really should read the book, and I don’t want anyone to give their baby shaken baby syndrome based on my half-assed description here. But here is how it worked for me.

I held my swaddled baby in my lap, as she cried. I put her on her side, shushed her, and then held Stella’s head in my hands and gently rocked it back and forth. This motion, Karp said, acts like an off switch build into newborns, it's an instinct.

I saw it. I gently rocked Stella for just a few minutes and she passed out. I couldn’t believe it. She then stayed out for several hours. It worked, in other words.

Frustrated with our old, useless swaddling cloth I bought a new one from Toys ‘R Us, called Swaddle Me, that wraps up Stella a lot more snugly than before, and now all we have to do is put her in it at bedtime, put on the ‘Sheep, and 9 times out of 10 she will go to sleep and stay asleep, in most cases, waking up just once or twice all night. Then in the morning she’s happy and smiling. It's a whole new world, in other words.

If we’d only known all this two months ago, well, it would’ve been a very different household over here, a happier, better-rested one, at the very least. But better late than never.

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