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Busting Baby Behavior Myths for Today's Grandparents

'Happiest Baby' author outlines the latest advice in infant care

spinner image Grandparents on a sofa with grandson playing with a toy
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As adult children start their own families, their parents — the new grandparents — may want to lend a helping hand.

As veteran moms or dads, they may remember those sleepless nights all too well. So, who better to provide a tip or two?

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But conventional wisdom on baby care has changed, so grandparents, you may want to brush up on the facts. Here, pediatrician Harvey Karp, the bestselling author of The Happiest Baby on the Block, spells out the latest thinking and busts some old child care myths.

Myth 1: Babies who sleep on their backs can choke on their spit-up.

In the 1990s, stomach sleeping was discovered to triple the risk of crib death, also called Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS).

We immediately advised parents to let babies sleep only on the back. The result: SIDS deaths dropped 50 percent.

It turns out babies are smarter than we thought. They naturally turn their head to the side when vomiting.

Myth 2: Never wake a sleeping baby.

Slightly jostling a baby when he or she is placed down is called the wake-and-sleep technique. It is the first step in helping babies develop the ability to drift back into sleep when a noise or hiccup accidentally rouses them in the middle of the night.

So, it's actually good to wake sleeping babies when you place them down to sleep. If the baby fusses when aroused, it's usually easy to soothe the infant with swaddling, a bit of jiggling of the crib or some white noise.

Myth 3: Sleeping babies need complete quiet.

"Shhh … the baby is sleeping!” But, think about it … did you ever see a baby fall into a deep sleep at a noisy party or sporting event?

The womb is loud, as loud as a vacuum cleaner, 24 hours a day. Many adults also sleep better with sound.

We now know that a quiet room is weird to babies. The environment is too still, a bit like putting you in a silent, dark closet.

Myth 4: Babies should not sleep in the parents’ room.

Actually, having a newborn baby sleep in the parents’ room is the way to go.

Room sharing, for the first 6 months, is more convenient for feedings and lets you hear when your baby is uncomfortable in any way. And even more important, we've discovered that babies who sleep in the parents’ room — but I must emphasize not in their bed — have a much lower risk of SIDS.

Myth 5: It’s best to avoid high allergy foods until the first birthday when the baby’s body can handle them better.

spinner image Assortment of foods that may be allergic to babies and young children
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For a few decades, we recommended avoidance of allergenic foods such as eggs, peanuts or dairy for the first year. We even told nursing moms to avoid them to keep the foods from entering their breast milk.

Now we know the opposite is true: Early introduction of these foods reduces the risk of serious allergy and delay actually increases the risk.

Myth 6: Babies hate being swaddled — they need their hands out to explore and self-soothe.

You might think it looks odd to see a newborn all swaddled up, but for centuries parents have wrapped up their babies. In fact, many studies show that snug-wrapping keeps babies happier and safer — preventing rolling to the risky stomach position.

Myth 7: Formula is as good as breast milk.

Thank goodness we have formula, in case a mom can't or chooses not to breastfeed, but it's important to note that science just can't duplicate some properties in breast milk.

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Breast milk has hundreds of ingredients, like special proteins, enzymes, antibodies, that are missing from formula. And it contains so many infection-fighting white blood cells that some doctors call breast milk “white blood.”

As an extra bonus, nursing lowers a mom's risk of breast and ovarian cancer.

Myth 8: Soothing babies to sleep every night makes them dependent on it.

In truth, babies are born dependent on rocking and shushing. Every day and night — for nine months — the unborn baby is soothed to sleep by the rich rhythms of the womb: constant rocking, loud rumbly sounds, with cuddly embrace in a protected little ball.

By contrast, after birth we put the baby into a disorienting and bizarre world where we expect the baby to sleep in a silent room, in a new, unnatural position totally stretched out on the back, in a totally still bed for 16 hours every day.

Myth 9: Babies get spoiled by parents who always respond to their crying.

In the late 1800s, America's leading baby doctor, Emmett Holt, wrote: “Babies less than six months old should never be played with at all.”

By the 1920s, the question of whether to rock a baby was no longer open to discussion. Quite frankly, no one dared admit to doing it.

Fast forward a century; parents still worry about spoiling their babies. But modern parents are taught to think of the early months as the fourth trimester of pregnancy, a time when it is almost impossible to snuggle a baby too much.

In fact, studies show that during the first six months responding promptly to a baby's fussing establishes a child's core foundation of confidence and trust, called secure attachment.

Myth 10: Moms are better caregivers than dads.

Baby care responsibilities always have fallen on the shoulders of women. Men were seen as peripheral, if not bumbling.

However, while women are utterly superior to men at breastfeeding, baby caring requires a totally different skill, one that men are particularly good at: womb impersonation.

Today's parents are taught to imitate the baby's beloved womb sensations via a method called the 5 S's:

• Swaddling
• Side/stomach position (to calm fussing, never for sleep)
• Shushing
• Swinging and
• Sucking

This approach is described in my parent guide The Happiest Baby on the Block.

The 5 S's soothe babies by activating a recently discovered “off-switch” for crying that all babies have called the “calming reflex."

Myth 11: Stomach pain causes colic.

spinner image Grandfather holds an infant baby while sitting and happily smiles into the camera
Jose Luis Pelaez Inc / Getty Images

Colicky babies fuss inconsolably for two to three hours a day. The word colic comes from ancient Greek, meaning “crampy stomach pain.”

Up until the 1970s, doctors treated these little screamers with drops of opium (called paregoric). Amazingly, paregoric was sold by the gallon at pharmacies across the western world.

That opium would reduce pain makes sense. But what makes no sense is why colicky babies also calm when you turn on a hair dryer or take the baby on a bouncy car ride.

Those strong sensations mimic the womb and switch on the calming reflex, but they won't do anything for bad pain.

It turns out that the big problem is that our world is too quiet and still. Any grandmother knows that babies do best with lots and lots of holding, rocking and shush-y white noise.

In the womb, babies enjoy a 24/7 symphony of rhythmic sensations. That's why giving infants extra soothing can quickly reduce these demoralizing meltdowns.

Myth 12: Babies can sense when their mothers are anxious … and it makes them more upset, too.

But babies are just babies. They can't read your complex emotions.

They have no idea if mom or dad is anxious, sad or angry. On the other hand, anxiety can make a parent so unsure that he or she jumps from one thing to another when the baby is wailing.

And that inconsistency is something that can increase a baby's crying.

Myth 13: Postpartum depression is uncommon … and a big shift in hormones causes it.

Postpartum depression or anxiety is actually quite common. About 1 in 6 new moms will develop emotional pressures that are much greater than the little “baby blues.”

While new moms definitely experience large hormonal shifts, studies show that adoptive mothers and even men can develop postpartum depression. So, while hormones may play some role, the biggest triggers are exhaustion, not having support and feeling overwhelmed.

Myth 14: Mixing rice cereal into the milk boosts a baby's sleep.

Think about it for a minute: Do you really think adding a bit of rice would be more filling than rich breast milk or formula?

Milk is a nutritious and filling mix of the best fats, carbohydrates and proteins. Powdered rice starch is very quickly digested and it doesn't sit in the stomach to make a baby feel full.

In fact, studies show adding rice to a bottle does nothing for a baby's sleep.

Myth 15: You need to break the Binky habit early.

Sucking is deeply soothing for babies, and that's why it's one of the 5 S's.

Weaning the pacifier is easiest around 6 months of age. But some babies just need to suck, and they want it much longer.

Pacifiers can be an important friend supporting a child through the normal stresses of siblings, illness, starting school. And they don't usually cause serious orthodontic issues — thumbs are much more problematic.

Nevertheless, offering a blanket or stuffed animal at 1 year old may be a great substitute for sucking.

Harvey Karp is a pediatrician, child development expert, author of the best seller The Happiest Baby on the Block and inventor of SNOO Smart Sleeper.

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