Skip to main content Skip to header navigation

The No 1 Thing Parents Forget About Baby Sleep

Dr. Harvey Karp

Human beings have been around babies for, well, forever. You’d think we would just know everything about them, and that everyone would agree. Yet there remains perhaps even more arguing, lecturing, and chaos about babies than about who should be president (and that’s saying a lot).

Because there’s the idea that newborn days necessarily mean sleepless nights, parents have gone to great lengths to seek out the secret to less crying. This is nothing new. Since the beginning of time, thinkers have posed theory after theory about baby sleep. In centuries past, people attributed baby crying to everything from the evil eye and the devil to bad mother’s milk. Some even speculated that daytime was for adults to talk, while nighttime was the baby’s turn. The topic of baby sleep has been a buzzing, blooming, state of confusion — until now.

What parents are missing

There’s one baby sleep realization that puts everything into perspective, and it’s one that so many parents forget even exists: the fourth trimester. Yes, another trimester. Like so many other wonderful insights, this was right in front of our noses, just waiting to be noticed! For three long trimesters, babies live a happy life in the womb, where they are cradled by the snug walls of the uterus, rocked and jiggled with each breath and movement Mom takes, and exposed to constant low, rumbly whooshing noises.

Parents may forget that it’s this bustling environment that babies are used to…not the silence and stillness of their homes. While you may think your peaceful nursery offers your little one an ideal environment, from your lovebug’s point of view, it’s as foreign as the surface of a distant planet. Despite all the new stimulating sensations newborns are introduced to (internal feelings of gas, hunger, and thirst, as well as new external sights, sounds, and textures), they also face disturbingly under-stimulating stillness. Just think about how strange your home must seem after the constant jiggling and surround-sound shushing of the womb.

After centuries of myths and confusion, it is now clear that the true basis of sleep woes and persistent crying is when babies are deprived of these calming rhythms of the womb. Parents have used rocking, shushing, long drives, and other techniques that imitate aspects of the womb to soothe babies for millennia, but our generation is the first in history to know that they work by turning on the calming reflex.

So, what’s the best way to impersonate these womb sensations?

How to create an out-of-womb womb

Most soothing techniques fall into one of five categories: swaddling (snug holding), side/stomach position, shushing (white noise), swinging (motion), and sucking. I call these the five “S”es. It’s a technique that’s been taught by Happiest Baby educators all over the world.

Here’s how to put them together to calm crying and boost baby sleep.

Swaddle: Swaddling recreates the cozy surroundings of the womb and is the cornerstone of calming. It decreases startling and boosts sleep.

Side/stomach position: Activate this “S” by holding your baby on their stomach or side. However, it’s very important to note that while you can and should hold babies on their side or stomach, it is not safe to place a baby on the side or stomach to sleep. The back is the only safe sleeping position for babies.

Shush: In the womb, the shushing sound of blood flow is louder than a vacuum cleaner! Imitate this sound with low, rumbly white noise (I just recently introduced a white noise machine, SNOObear, that features white noise specially engineered to calm crying, and it doubles as a huggable lovey.)

Swing: Life in the womb is very jiggly. Though slow rocking is fine for quiet babies, fast, tiny motions may be necessary to soothe a squawking infant. To do it: Support the head/neck, keep your motions small, and move no more than an inch back and forth.

Suck: This “S” is the icing on the cake. Lots of fussy babies are best able to relax when they suck on a pacifier.

I’ve also harnessed three of the five “S”es (swaddling, swinging, shushing) into SNOO Smart Sleeper, which intelligently responds to babies with womb-like sensations while they sleep in a specially designed swaddle that secures them on the backs for all nights and naps — preventing them from rolling into risky positions. SNOO is able to detect crying and respond with just the right amount of sound and motion to turn on the calming reflex and calm fussing, often in under a minute.

Mastering the five “S”es is like learning to ride a bike: strange at first, but lots of fun once you get the hang of it. Of course, your new skills may be difficult to practice when your baby is flailing and shrieking at a level that could shatter glass. So, I recommend experimenting with the five “S”es when your baby is already calm or asleep.

Soon, you’ll feel much more confident — and your baby will calm faster, too. With each repetition of the five “S”es, your baby will begin to recognize what you’re doing, and remember how much they like it. Then, the whole family can enjoy another crucial “S”… sleep.

Here are some more products real moms recommend to help kids sleep.

Children sleep products

Leave a Comment