The Happiest Baby on the Block, Harvey Karp

Bantam, 2003, 288 pages, C$18.00 pb, ISBN 978-0-553-38146-7

Part One: January 2012

You may expect the reviews on this web site to be intended for visitors, as guides to good or bad reading, movies worth watching or avoiding: the self-styled blogger as one more voice in the cacophony of recommendations.  The truth is that more often than not, this site serves as a public archive of what I was thinking at a given moment –an online journal of striking experiences as mediated by movies and books, if you will.  So it is that in early 2012, few things weigh heavier on my mind than the imminent birth of my daughter.  I have planned in consequence; as far as this web site is concerned, I have made sure the coding can sustain a few months’ worth of inattention; more visibly, I have put up a semi-hiatus notice so that no one can expect me to post much in 2012.

But that doesn’t mean I’m completely off the reviewing game.  You can turn a reviewer in a father, but you can’t entirely erase the reviewing impulse.  When I get my hands on a book such as The Happiest Baby on the Block, my second thoughts (after reading and absorbing its content) are to talk about it online.

I picked up the book in the first place because it is a quasi-universal reference whenever expecting parents ask for recommendations online.  It usually follows the encyclopedic What to Expect The First Year (which is as review-proof as they come –just buy it!) as an essential resource in dealing against the dreaded colics, those endless crying bouts that seem to take so much out of new parents during the first three months of many babies’ lives.  The recommendations usually come along with a variation on “This really works”.  So; is there some truth in this book’s reputation?

The only way to say for sure is to report back in three months.  In the meantime, though, there are a few things to say.

The first is that The Happiest Baby on the Block is a very enjoyable read.  Karp writes at length about a fairly simple topic (much of the book can be summarized in a few words –swaddle, side, swing, shush, suck–, and in fact you will find a handy two-page summary of the book on pages 127-128, right where you’d break the spine to keep the book open) but he does so in a relatively entertaining fashion, with plenty of repetition, anecdotes, call-backs and amusing illustrations to make his point.  The repetition may be annoying, but it may also be essential for a book of this kind –you’re not going to read it at 3AM when baby’s bawling, so it does its best to repeat a simple message in many ways and hope that one of those formulations sticks in your mind long enough to be useful in the wee hours of the morning.

Much of The Happiest Baby on the Block is built around the “Fourth Trimester” theory –based on the observation that babies don’t really start interacting with their environment until the three-month mark; Karp theorizes that the first three months of live are really a “fourth trimester” in which the just-born fetus becomes a true baby.  The better we understand and try to replicate the environment in which the baby has spent the first three trimesters, the better are our chances are at calming it down.  For instance, Carp reminds us that newborns like background noises (the womb is very noisy) and like to be coddled (they’ve been squeezed from every direction for months).  More audaciously, Karp looks at the evidence about colics to suggest that they’re often not about innate factors as much as they’re about developmental anxieties from babies suddenly experiencing the world.  He points at the lack of colics in other cultures and other hints to suggest to parents that colics can be controlled and managed –if not avoided entirely.

There is, of course, a slight cultish tinge to Karp’s book: The first few chapters are classic “don’t listen to anyone else; only I have the truth” indoctrination.  The sometimes-cloying writing style makes the same point over and over.  Keep in mind the intended audience of the book, though: ultra-stressed sleep-deprived parents seeking any kind of reassurance.  At least one friend has compared infant-caring to brainwashing (no sleep, constant focus on one individual and repetitive mindless tasks –hello, Geneva Convention abuse hotline?) and it doesn’t take a stretch of the imagination to imagine Karp trying to impose another kind of brainwashing over the one created by the newborn.  The fact that the book comes accompanied by an online store filled with a small galaxy of related products (Web site!  DVD! CD! Blanket), and is prefaced by celebrity endorsements (including one by “Pierce Brosnan… environmentalist and actor”) will count as negatives for readers eager to distrust the too-slick “baby MD to the stars” approach.

Still, it’s a fun read.  The writing style is easy to grasp and the book is greatly enhanced by a number of adorable Parisian-style cartoons illustrations by Jennifer Kalis (“You will soon fall in love with a bald stranger who doesn’t speak a word of English.”)  The book’s primary value for expectant fathers without much baby-handling experience is to offer a framework of things to do in handling a newborn: Reading the book is a huge confidence-booster while anticipating baby’s arrival.

But, of course, there’s no way to be sure whether the book works until we make it out of the first three months.

Part Two: May 2012

Now that our daughter has celebrated her sixteenth week, we can almost safely say that we’re out of the colics danger zone.  And the biggest news to report on this front is… nothing.  Baby has cried a lot during these past three-and-a-half months (her parents will never take sleep for granted ever again) but there have not been any extended bouts of unexplainable crying.  Most of the time, baby cried briefly or for easily-identifiable reasons (most of them gas-related) and we were able to clam baby down by applying the techniques described in the book.

So there’s your review of The Happiest Baby on the Block.

The confidence-booster in reading the book can’t be overestimated.  We started applying the book’s calming techniques moments after birth (most dramatically trying to calm down baby while blood samples were being taken by the nurses) and haven’t really stopped so far.  As someone with non-existent baby-handling experience, the book’s recommendations were immediately helpful in knowing how to handle a baby and calm her down.  While the effectiveness of some techniques has ebbed over the past sixteen weeks (swaddling was immediately helpful the first three weeks but became counterproductive once baby grew; pacifiers only became useful around week six), the overall message that crying can be controlled was a huge help in approaching the issue.  The book keeps telling readers to apply calming measures vigorously, to be persistent, and meet the baby with an appropriate level of effort: This helped a lot in sticking to the plan and as a result, baby seldom cried more than a few minutes at a time.

The big question becomes; were we exceptionally lucky in having a good non-colicky newborn, or did the book help?  My own suspicion, based on nothing more than a hunch, is that babies can often be “programmed” to go into colics, or conversely avoid them.  Reading the book may have helped us create an environment in which baby has always been effectively reassured, hence unlikely to resort to the kind of constant crying that drives parents crazy.  It helped us calm down the nagging doubts that we may be spoiling the baby by providing this much attention (at nearly four months, we are only now progressively leaving her by herself for longer periods of time) and helped us figure out what was likely happening.

For expectant parents, The Happiest Baby on the Block shouldn’t be your only pre-birth reading material (taking care of a baby is a project of vast scope, and this only covers “calming down baby”) but it’s likely to become an essential set of tools in dealing with the chaos of the first few weeks following birth.  It’s a morale-booster, a conceptual framework (especially helpful if you’re the analytical kind –and here you are reading book reviews, aren’t you?) and a helpful guide at once.  It’ll help.  Don’t worry.

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