Dr. Harvey Karp on the Biggest Myths About Baby Sleep That We’re All Buying Into

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Like many tired, shell-shocked new parents, I was desperate for a way — any way — to get a little extra rest when my kids were little. I had fussy, colicky babies who needed to be bounced and rocked pretty much 24/7, and I remember frantically scouring the Internet for ways to soothe them.

That’s when I stumbled upon Dr. Harvey Karp’s book, The Happiest Baby on the Block. Dr. Karp not only assured me that I wasn’t alone, but that my baby wasn’t a total weirdo for needing that level of soothing, either. One thing he spoke of that still sticks out in my memory is a phenomenon called the “fourth trimester”: the idea that human babies actually are born before they’re quite ready, which is why they typically need all that extra TLC. Dr. Karp’s book taught me techniques to make all the soothing more effective and sustainable. It was (and I promise I’m not being paid to say this) a total lifesaver.

So you can imagine how excited I was given the chance to interview Dr. Karp himself, all these years later. Dr. Karp is still doing his thing — making new parents feel less alone — and offering up some practical, no-nonsense tips for making their lives easier. Nowadays, however, his focus isn’t quite as much on soothing fussy babies (though he’s still pretty passionate about that, too), but more on ways to ensure a good night’s sleep for babies and their abysmally exhausted parents.

Part of the problem, Dr. Karp tells me, is that we don’t have proper expectations for how babies sleep. In fact, he feels that there are quite a few myths surrounding baby sleep that many of us have incorrectly bought into, and he is ready to clear them up.

… Ready to hear ’em?

Myth 1: Babies need a totally silent sleep environment.

If you’re anything like I was during the newborn phase, you tried (or are still trying) to do everything in your power to make sleep-time as silent as possible. Turns out, we were both wrong.

“Unlike horses and cows ready to be born, babies need a fourth trimester,” Dr. Karp tells me. “When you imitate the womb, babies sleep better and do better.”

And that womb? It was LOUD, says Dr. Karp; so we actually need to replicate that as much as possible to help babies sleep. He recommends white noise machines for sleep, and stresses that using the proper white noise machine (which he elaborates on further right here) is just as important as using it at all.

Myth 2: Rice cereal makes babies sleep better.

Here’s another one we’ve all heard: The idea is that if you add some rice cereal to a baby’s bottle, it will keep the baby full and therefore less likely to wake at night.

“It makes no sense,” says Karp, who explains that breast milk and formula are full of fat and carbs, and there’s no reason to think that rice cereal has some magic ingredient in it that would keep a baby any more satisfied than milk. “Why would the milk not keep them asleep, but one teaspoon of rice starch would?” he argues, adding that rice cereal also “makes their poop stink!”

Well, case closed then.

Myth 3: There’s an age when babies start sleeping through the night.

This is one question we are all desperate to find out. But Dr. Karp’s answer might totally surprise you (and, ummm, depress you). “Most people would say 4 months, 5 months, 6 months, something like that,” says Dr. Karp. “But what I would say is never. Babies never sleep through the night.”

Dr. Karp explains that even adults wake too, but we soothe themselves back to sleep. If everything is how it was when you went back to sleep, you won’t even remember waking, he explained. But if you wake up and your pillow is on the floor or something, you will wake up more fully. The same is true for babies: they get used to whatever associations you supply them with, Dr. Karp explains.

He doesn’t think you need to teach them to self-soothe as newborns, though. In fact, it’s not possible. Babies can only learn to self-soothe by about six months, when they are neurologically mature enough to be weaned from whatever soothing techniques you’ve employed in the first few months, Dr. Karp says. (Gosh, I wish my babies got the memo at that age!).

Myth 4: Being a sleep-deprived parent is normal.

Dr. Karp is very concerned about the rising rates of postpartum depression among new moms, which is currently around 1 in 7 moms, and 1 in 3 moms among higher risk populations, he says. He also believes strongly that sleep deprivation is a contributing factor in PPD, and one that doesn’t get nearly enough attention.

In addition, he tells me that sleeping less than 6 hours a night (and truly, what new parent gets much more than that?) can have detrimental effects on our ability to parent our babies safely and effectively. “Six hours or less sleep is similar to being drunk,” says Dr. Karp.

The bottom line? We’ve all got to prioritize sleep for ourselves as much as for our babies.

And that bring us to perhaps the biggest myth or misconception plaguing new parents when it comes infant sleep, according to Dr. Karp …

Myth 5: Parents are meant to cope with the sleep deprivation and baby soothing all alone.

“The biggest myth of all is that the normal family is two parents and a child,” says Dr. Karp. He tells me that no one in history until 100 years ago had to parent alone, without extended family. “It’s important for people to pat themselves on the back and remember that they are doing a heroic job,” he adds. (Well, that’s for damn sure!)

But Dr. Karp also believes that parents shouldn’t just think they have to “suck it up, and deal with it.” So what’s his solution?

Dr. Karp thinks he’s found it in a “smart” baby sleeper he helped design called the SNOO — which actually rocks and soothes your baby to sleep, adjusting what it does based on your baby’s cues. Dr. Karp likes to think of the SNOO as that missing set of hands that so many of us don’t have to help us when our babies arrive.

And so far, people who’ve tried it can’t get enough. Even Ashton Kutcher and Mila Kunis have sang its praises, with Kutcher sharing in an interview just last month that it was a total lifesaver with his second child.

“It’s got a sensor in it, so the louder the kid cries, the faster it goes,” Kutcher explained. “And it puts the kid back to sleep!”

But if something like the SNOO is out of your budget (at a whopping $1,160, it’s not the golden ticket for us all), there are other ways to make it through those bleary, sleep deprived days of newborn-hood. As Karp says, most of us don’t have “the village” that new parents used to. But that doesn’t mean that we all need to be martyrs, either.

So, ask for help. Enlist your partner or extended family, if they are available. And most of all, adjust your expectations for what your baby is meant to do at this stage. Yes, babies need all the soothing and tender care that they are literally crying out for. But these harrowing months are only a stage, and like all stages, shall pass.

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