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The Happiest Baby on the Block

The Happiest Baby on the Block

The Happiest Baby on the Block by Harvey Karp

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

As you might have heard, our son Theodore was born two weeks ago. Since he is our first child, I naturally wanted to become more knowledgeable about little things like soothing him when he’s upset. We bought this book based on recommendations, and I think it met those expectations. The short summary is that the techniques described in the book work, but it is highly repetitive, and problematic in the way its thesis is presented.

The core concept is the 5 Ses: Swaddle, Shush, Swing, Side, and Suck. You can pretty much get that from the back of the book, and from some general knowledge of baby care. However, there were a few adjustments I learned that really helped:

  • I needed to swaddle more tightly
  • I needed to shush more loudly
  • I needed to swing more vigorously

With those minor changes, I’ve been able to calm him fairly quickly and in some cases even put him completely asleep. It’s worth noting that I am certain we are being helped by his apparent easy temperament. We generally have not needed to change his position to side or stomach holds (he prefers being upright anyway, I think because of womb position). Obviously a feeding works pretty well too, but I can’t help with that yet.

Given that, I think this book could have been much shorter. Mostly I would recommend reading the five core chapters on each S. He’s just very repetitive, which I guess drills things. I think that you can skip every personal anecdote (the stories in bold italics); nearly every one is of the form “My baby wouldn’t stop crying because of X. Dr. Karp showed me how to S, and now they calm themselves!”. They don’t add anything to the learning experience, but maybe they benefit other types of learners?

I had two major problems with the way the techniques were presented, both related to the narrative that American culture lost certain baby soothing techniques over the last 150 years. I think that change is true, and there are probably many factors (smaller family sizes, less intergenerational housing, consumer marketing of baby products, etc.) that have contributed to this shift. That discussion is out of scope for this book, but that didn’t stop Dr. Karp from trying, despite being a pediatrician and not a sociologist, anthropologist, or evolutionary biologist. I also took issue with some non-scientific pandering in the later chapters.

My first issue was in the area of evolutionary biology. Obviously I am not an expert in that field, but I know enough to note his errors regarding the Neanderthal timeline, when humans lived in caves, and being contemporaneous with dinosaurs! His idea that the soothing techniques work because in the womb a calm fetus is less at risk of umbilical cord entanglement sounds believable, but he provides no citations. I realize this isn’t that kind of book, but I’d like at least some justification.

Much more problematic was his presentation of baby care in other cultures. It smacked strongly of Romantic primitivism, perpetuating the stereotype that non-Western cultures are inherently more in tune with the natural world and our bodies’ needs because they don’t have industry and modern medicine so on. Relatedly it treated several examples as cultural monoliths, at one point even implying that Indonesia was a monoculture with a single belief about how babies should be swaddled. These examples annoyed me every time they came up, and were a reminder that the book is written for what seems to be a pretty narrow white middle class American audience.

An additional quick complaint: the chapter on dad’s duties was terrible. First I don’t appreciate the assumption that only moms would read the book, and second, it implied that dads barely help with the baby and are mostly just waiting for the post-partum “all clear” for sex.

Finally, there were some approving comments about non-scientific stuff like homeopathy that I felt didn’t have a place in this book. I figure they were there to pander to an audience looking for more natural solutions to colic?

Overall, a useful book for the basic calming techniques, but one with redundant problematic content that you probably won’t need to refer back to. Grab it from the library and skim it.

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Nicolas Ward

Software engineer in Natural Language Processing research by day; gamer, reader, and aspiring UltraNurd by night. Husband to Andrle
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