Is “The Happiest Baby On The Block” the Most Oppressed? Why I’m Not a Fan of The “5 S” Method of Calming Crying Babies

May 5, 2012 · 126 comments

in Book Reviews, Caring With Respect, Development, Infant Care, Our "View" of Babies, Relationship

Cry Baby

Is it just possible that the Happiest Baby On The Block is the most oppressed? If a parent responds to a baby’s cries as Doctor Harvey Karp suggests, from her earliest moments, the baby may be getting the message that her cries won’t be tolerated or taken seriously. I know this is absolutely the last message in the world that loving, caring parents intend to send to their babies, which is why I have a difficult time tolerating it when professionals package and sell programs to unsuspecting and vulnerable parents who only want to understand and offer comfort to their babies.

Consider: What messages might a baby be receiving if we respond to their cries in the way Doctor Harvey Karp demonstrates in this video?


Doctor Karp teaches new parents to “recreate the conditions of the womb” in order to comfort and quiet babies through using a method he refers to as the “5 S’s“:

  • Tight Swaddling: Karp says, “Tight swaddling provides the continuous touching and support your baby is used to experiencing within the womb.”  ( I don’t recommend tight swaddling because I believe babies need and deserve to be free to move their arms and legs, which is one of the ways they discharge energy. Additionally, tight swaddling can cause or aggravate existing hip problems. A better alternative is a sleep sack.)
  • Side/stomach position: “The infant is placed on their left side to assist in digestion, or on their stomach to provide reassuring support. “But never use the stomach position for putting your baby to sleep,” cautions Karp. Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS) is linked to stomach-down sleep positions. When a baby is in a stomach down position do not leave them even for a moment.” ( I’ve written about the drawbacks of  placing  babies on their stomachs before they can move into this position independently. It’s not worth the risk to your baby’s health, development, or safety to place her into a side or stomach position  in the hopes that it will stop her crying.)
  • Shushing sounds: “These imitate the continual whooshing sound made by the blood flowing through arteries near the womb.” ( I don’t believe loudly shushing a baby sends the message that I’m present, available, and listening.)
  • Swinging: Newborns are used to the swinging motions within their mother’s womb, so entering the gravity driven world of the outside is like a sailor adapting to land after nine months at sea. “It’s disorienting and unnatural,” says Karp. Rocking, car rides, and other swinging movements all can help. ( Babies quickly get used to and become dependent on rocking, car rides, bouncing, or swinging to lull them and to put them to sleep, and then come to need these things. I believe it best to comfort babies with a minimum amount of movement. Rocking, swaying, or walking with a crying baby is often comforting for the adult, but I’d avoid taking the baby for car rides in the hopes of quieting them. Magda Gerber suggested, “All the many forms of what we call comforting, bouncing a child on one’s knee or rocking her in a rocking chair, often express our own nervous energy and frustration when confronted with a crying baby.”)
  • Sucking: “Sucking has its effects deep within the nervous system,” notes Karp, “and triggers the calming reflex and releases natural chemicals within the brain.” (It’s true that babies derive comfort from sucking, but they find their hands or thumbs quickly when given an opportunity.)

Karp suggests using these “techniques” in the first weeks and months of a baby’s life, and all at once! I don’t know about you, but I didn’t observe that baby Maya was comforted by  having the “5 S’s” administered. To my eyes, she appeared to be shocked into silence. Not only that, but she was being “handled” and manipulated as if she was an object, not a human being. In fact, when I viewed the video for the first time, I didn’t realize that Doctor Karp was “using” an actual baby to “demonstrate” his method- I thought he was shaking a doll. I heard Janet Lansbury’s gentle admonishment, “If you wouldn’t want it done to you, don’t do it to your baby. In fact, don’t do things to your babydo things with your baby.”

Even more upsetting and insulting, Maya is being talked about as if she’s not there, as Karp goes on to advise the trusting mom how to “trick” her baby into holding onto the pacifier, by “pretending” to pull it away from her. When he asks Mom if Maya might be hungry, and the reply is “Yes,” he allows that it’s natural for Maya to be fussy, and “If you were at home and not doing a little class, you’d feed her.”  So- the baby is expressing a need, and the mother is understanding the baby’s communication, and the good doctor advises the mom to ignore her baby’s communication in the interest of continuing to demonstrate how well his calming technique works- for the cameras and all the world to see.

Again I ask, what message is Maya receiving? Wouldn’t it be better to help mom and baby to build their relationship by encouraging mom to listen, respond to, and honor Maya’s expressed need to eat? I would have been less incensed had Dr. Karp at least acknowledged or talked to the baby about what was happening. The infant was completely left out of the equation here.

Another difficulty I have with programs like Dr. Karp’s, which are meant to teach parents to “magically” stop a baby’s crying, is that they set up unrealistic expectations for parents. All soothing “strategies” may work some of the time, but nothing works all of the time.

This should not be a surprise; after all, babies are not machines, and do not act like machines. The problem is, of course, that programs that claim to be successful, especially when you “do it right,” can raise expectations that you should be able to soothe your infant. Then, if you can’t, and the infant continues to cry, you can feel even worse than you felt from the crying alone, because you have now “failed” somehow. The saddest thing is to hear about parents who say, even when they have done all the things they were promised would work, but their baby keeps crying, “I feel like such a failure.” Ronald G. Barr, MDCM, FRCP(C)


“Many babies cry a lot during the first weeks, even the first three months. There can be several reasons; most likely the premature organism does not yet function smoothly and babies have to learn to adapt to a very different life from the one that they were accustomed to in the womb.” Magda Gerber

I believe babies (even the most fragile) are up to the challenge of adapting, thriving, and participating in their own process when given a bit of gentle, calm support. Every effort should be made to understand and respond sensitively to a baby’s cry (which I see as communication), but I do not believe that we should try to (or need to) artificially recreate the conditions of the womb in order to quiet a crying baby.

In fact, quieting a crying baby should never be the goal. I suggest taking a deep breath, slowing and calming yourself before responding. Listen and try to understand why the baby is crying. You might say, “I hear you crying. I wonder what you might be saying?” If there is a need that can be met, like hunger, or the need for sleep, then it makes sense to respond by meeting the need. If baby is crying, and you can’t discern an obvious reason, then it can be helpful to reduce stimulation to a minimum, and just gently hold him, or lie her down. Skin to skin contact, gently swaying your body while cuddling baby in your arms, talking softly or quietly humming a song, may comfort your baby (or maybe it comforts you), but sometimes, you may find that nothing you do has a calming effect.

What is important for all parents to understand (but especially new parents),  is that it is normal and natural for babies to cry. In fact, this is what is sometimes referred to as The Period of PURPLE Crying which “begins at about 2 weeks of age and continues until about 3-4 months. There are common characteristics of this phase, or period, which are described by the acronym PURPLE. All babies go through this Period; it is just that during this time some can cry a lot, some far less, but they all do go through it,” writes Marilyn Barr, Founder/Executive Director, NCSBS

I want to help all adults and new parents to understand that each day, newborn babies mature and “settle” a bit more, and that from the very beginning, babies are learning about themselves, about us, and about their world through their interactions with us. Babies are dependent on adults to meet their needs, but this doesn’t mean that they are not conscious human beings. Babies deserve to be treated with dignity and respect, and as partners in relationship from their very first moments.

I’m passionate about helping new parents to understand their babies’ cries, and encouraging them to feel confident in responding in ways that will strengthen and build the relationship and communication between them and their baby. To that end, I’m offering some further resources here, and as always, I welcome all questions and comments.

Period of Purple Crying, A New Way To Understand Your Baby’s Crying

What Is All That Crying About?  Ronald G. Barr, MDCM, FRCPC

The Truth About Infant Self Soothing Janet Lansbury

7 Reasons To Calm Down About Babies Crying Janet Lansbury

The Secret Language of Babies Janet Lansbury

It’s Okay to Let Your Baby Cry Gracelings

Babies and Crying: What’s a parent to do? Lisa Sunbury

Soothing Your Baby the Calms Way Parenting With Love

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Amanda August 26, 2012

THANK YOU!!!!! I needed to hear this tonight in the worst way. I’ve been feeling very guilty lately and even going agaist my better judgement because I feel so much pressure to not let my baby cry. This idea that at the cost of everything else (my other child, husband, dinner, cleaning, my own sanity) I should never allow my child to cry is insane! Forget the message it sends … The real tragedy is the message this parenting philosophy sends later! I just needed to be empowered tonight to do what I know is right: Listen, observe, respond in love using my parental judgement and not just emotion. The big picture must be kept in mind, not just “I need to quiet this kid down” or “I need to fix this kid.”

Lisa August 27, 2012


I’m so glad that this was an empowering and helpful message for you! This post has been so controversial- it means a lot to hear from someone for whom it made a positive difference. It’s why I do what I do. If I can inspire, uplift, support, or make a difference for one person, it’s all worth it to me.

Trixie September 2, 2012

I’m so glad I found this page – thank you for sharing!
I was just about to buy the book on Amazon but the mention of shushing in the synopsis worried me so I did a quick google and found your site. My goodness that video is disturbing. Somebody should blast that horrible sound down his eardrum to see how he likes it.
I would like to see a long term psychological study conducted on the babies that are raised this way.

Jamie September 15, 2012

The doctor posts his advice based on research. You’re offering anecdotes, at best.

Lisa September 15, 2012


We will have to agree to disagree on this one. I’m offering an informed opinion based on observation, experience, and research combined. No matter what “research” says you’ll never find me endorsing or using Karp’s “method” in the way he himself demonstrates it, and there are plenty of other practitioners and clinicians who have access to the same research and have come to different conclusions about babies, crying, and how to respond to, or help soothe a crying baby- Brazelton, Als, and Solter, to name just a few.

Stuart February 10, 2013

This was my reaction to the article as well. Rather than present well-founded research for the article’s conclusions, the author simply states “I believe…” Documentation would be helpful, otherwise, this article is pretty worthless.

Lisa February 14, 2013


I’ve provided plenty of links to documentation supporting my conclusions. Not only that, but I’m speaking from years of education and hands on experience. This is an educational site, not a college thesis.

Michele Wolfe November 14, 2012

You are taking it a little to the extreme there, buddy. As a 20 year child care worker, I see and agree with the 5 Ss, FROM 20 YEARS OF EXPERIENCE. You only do these things for a short amount of time, not until they are one, you don’t swaddle so tightly that it causes harm????? you don;t shhh so loudly that it ruptures an eardrum…COME ON!!!! If you allow a child to cry with no response you make them feel unwanted and unimportant………which creates LOW SELF-ESTEEM no sense of self worthiness!!!I could go on for hours….makes my blood boil!

Lisa November 15, 2012


I can’t tell from your comment if you think it’s Dr. Karp who is taking things to extremes, or if you think it’s me who is taking things to extremes. I am certainly not suggesting that a child EVER be left to cry without being responded to, but I would argue that no baby needs or deserves to be subjected to the 5 S method, no matter how “gently” it is administered. There are many gentle, supportive ways to respond to crying babies that let them know they are being listened to and cared for, and that they are wanted and important, and none of them involve swaddling or shushing them. Thanks for reading.

Patricia Torngren November 15, 2012

Hi Michele,

I agree with you when you say… “If you allow a child to cry with no response you make them feel unwanted and unimportant”.

My concern is that tight swaddling, hissing in the baby’s ear, forcing something into the baby’s mouth, etc. in order to shut them up by putting them into neurological overload, is not a comforting response.

When babies cry we need to respond by (a) meeting any physical need or (b) if they are needing to cry to release stress, by holding them lovingly, and listening to them with respect. Babies who are crying are trying to tell us something. We need to be willing to hold them and above all to be willing to listen to what they are trying to tell us.

You might find this link interesting — Debby Takikawa and Carrrie Contey put it so well:

Your comments are welcome…

Jenn D January 13, 2013

I’m a firm advocator of Dr. Karp’s books. If you read the book, which I recommend, he talks about why he feels and has seen his methods working. He doesn’t advocate ignoring what is going on with the baby, but instead WHEN you have ruled out the basics – not hungry, not wet/dirty, not in pain or distress, THEN you simply have an upset baby that may be overstimulated or overtired, and THEN you can employ his methods to quickly calm and comfort them.

Baby eardrums have a thick protective layer of wax covering them, so ‘shhh’ing loudly isn’t going to hurt them. If you’re worried about it, just don’t ‘shhh’ right into their ear. I believe, if I recall right, that the book recommended 6-7 inches away to do the shhhing sound. And the loud sound is due to the fact that the womb is actually very very loud, approximately 70-90 decibels, thus, yes, they ARE used to such loud sounds. Anecdotal stories I’ve heard from people are that their babies would only fall asleep if they were running the vacuum cleaner, or shower, or other loud ‘white’ noises.

My son was about 3 weeks old when he went ‘colic’ on us, and I spent a whole week trying everything else… walking, bouncing, laying with, one night driving for an hour up and down the highway, comforting, and I spent a whole week with nothing but a baby that slept for 30 minutes, but ONLY on my chest, ONLY on his belly, and then would be awake for 45 minutes screaming unconsolingly, to go back to sleep for 30 minutes.

A friend of mine recommended the book, and after reading it, I employed the methods given, and … immediately, that night, he slept for 5 hours straight, on his back, in his bassinet. And we haven’t gone back since then.

I remember the first time I used the ‘shhh’, ‘side’, ‘swing’ method, he went from mid-cry to silence, and then immediately closed his eyes and went to sleep. I also do not and did not have a problem with him becoming dependent on needing swinging/swaying/shhhing to keep him asleep. He does need to be swaddled for most naps, but that’s due to the fact that he’ll throw his hands up and hit himself in the face and wake himself up as he’s trying to fall asleep. But he only needs a loose swaddle now, to keep him from bonking himself on the head.

During vaccination appointments with the pediatrician, utilizing the methods in the book, he stopped crying within moments and was once again a happy baby. Even to the point where they were out of the 5-in-1 shot, and had to give him 5 separate injections.

While different methods work for different babies, I would have to wholeheartedly approve of the Happiest Baby on the Block methods, especially if you have a ‘colic’ baby that other methods you try do not work with. My own experience with it has been wonderful, and I have a happy 7 month old now, and when people act surprised that since he was 3 weeks old I’ve been able to get a full 6-8 hour uninterrupted sleep… I know why. Maybe it won’t work on every baby, but it certainly worked on mine, and I don’t feel that my utilization of it depersonified my son. Instead, it gave me things that I could actually do to provide him comfort when nothing else would.

Chris March 5, 2013

Take this for what it is, but maybe half of the reason why the people that are getting upset with this blog, is the way you are defending your claims. The use of excessive quotations lends to sarcasm and a perceived lack of worth of their comments. Anyway, grammar aside.

As a father of two, both colicky, nothing worked except holding them constantly. I and my wife were both exhausted to the point of tears on many, many occasions. I wholeheartedly agree that an infant picks up on your emotions, being awake for a day and more doesn’t help the situation. Vilifying a technique that’s safe and could (and I stress the could) improve the calmness of either parent or child, seems to me, to not be in the best interest of the child.

To all of the other new parents out there, use whatever works for you and your little one. A stressed parent equals a stressed kid. Do what works and don’t let anyone make you feel bad for trying.

Aunt Annie's Childcare March 7, 2013

Oh dear, Chris. If you had actually read Lisa’s responses to many of these upset comments carefully, and without the filter of your own defensiveness, you would have seen that at no stage does she try to make anyone feel bad for trying the techniques she disagrees with. In fact she comforts them in a most understanding and empathetic way. It is the flogging of Karp’s technique as a universal panacea, in the interests of making money and with little reference to the baby’s responses, that offends her and others- and rightly so.

Also, quoting from comments clarifies meaning. Some people in this thread have been extremely offensive in the way they have addressed Lisa, who is trying to perform a public service here for NO MONEY in her own time out of her concern for children’s welfare. It is very easy to hide behind the anonymity of the internet and be rude and offensive, and I don’t think these people actually deserve the careful and well-thought-out responses that Lisa has given them. If her frustration with repeated disrespect for her time and efforts to help children sometimes shows through, well hello, she is actually human too and she is being used for target practice by people who don’t appear to be contributing anything positive to the conversation.

At the same time I hear your frustration too. Colicky babies are just so, so hard and stress does impact on everyone in the equation. Sometimes you have to do whatever works for the protection of your baby, because the bottom line is that if you are about to lose the plot, you must not shake or strike a baby and ANYTHING that prevents you from doing that is the best choice. I HEAR THAT. This advice that Lisa is giving is not meant to push people over the edge or feel guilty. It’s meant to help people NOT to be ripped off by thinking there is some ‘magic’ method to stopping a baby crying and THEY CAN HAVE THAT IF THEY PAY FOR IT. It’s meant to show that there’s a hole in Karp’s bucket. It’s meant to show that there are other alternatives. It’s meant to help you look at your baby as an individual, not something off a conveyor belt that can be ‘fixed’ by a ‘method’ for a price.

For my part, I know that my baby- who did cry a LOT- cried more when restrained by swaddling. SCREAMED, in fact. He loved the car and happily slept in it, which stopped me from going mad. Making noises in his ear? He probably would have lashed out and hit me- HATED that stuff. Jiggling? Not unless he had wind. I listened to my baby, not some expert, and I never regretted it. When I look back now- my child is 27- I see that I instinctively followed basic RIE principles, and I would thoroughly recommend them to any parent because they encourage you to know your own baby and trust your baby to tell you what he/she needs. My son is STILL telling me what he needs and feels at 27, and has done so all his life. I rest my case.

Liz April 4, 2013

Everyone is entitled to their opinion, but I’m sorry, I just don’t think letting a newborn cry himself “purple” is parenting with love and respect. As a parent, my job is to do everything I can to make my child feel heard, safe and loved, and to answer his cries with feeding, changing or calming methods as appropriate. Letting him scream while sitting there telling him I hear and understand him is ludicrous, as he has neither the attention span nor language skills to understand such adult attempts at communication. Yes, skin-to-skin can often work as can rocking and singing, but when I have checked all the other causes and tried the above and he is still inconsolable, I see nothing wrong with recreating the womb where he was snugly and constantly cuddled and could hear the whoosh of my blood and beat of my heart 24/7. That is listening to my child’s cues.

You generally do not need to continue the 5 S’s beyond three months anyway, as baby’s neurological pathways have sufficiently developed for him to adapt to the new environment without fear. The idea of a “Fourth Trimester” makes a huge amount of sense. For those of you that haven’t read the material, it’s basically the premise that if our human heads didn’t get too large to pass through the birth canal after about 9 months in utero, we wouldn’t be – and are not ready to be – born until 12 months. Thus, it makes sense that the first three months of post-womb time should be a gradual tapering off of the safe, comforting environment your child enjoyed inside your body.

Anyone who has used these methods can also tell you that they do not create an ongoing dependency, and in fact engender a confident, happy and curious infant who trusts that you can meet all of his needs while he learns and grows. If something else works for you, great, use it, but don’t discount someone’s ideas just because they have published them and are making money. Dr. Karp’s advice is also all over YouTube and network TV which is free, and most hospitals now distribute a 5 S flyer in the newborn packet free of charge.

Besides, most of the recommended reading on all of these blogs and websites entails published books, DVDs, etc., so Dr. Karp is clearly not the only one making money from their baby calming techniques. Discounting methods that women have used for thousands of years just because someone published them is like cutting off your nose to spite your face.

Lisa April 6, 2013

Well Liz, You’ve made your opinion clear, and it differs from mine, so we’ll just leave it at that. I trust everyone to read and make up their own mind. Thanks for the comment.

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