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Infant Sleep Training & More Essential Advice for New Parents

We know sleep is important—so important that a significant lack of it can cause a slew of health issues that run the gamut from hormonal imbalance to premature aging to high blood pressure (more on that here). The big irony is that sleep is especially crucial for a chunk of the population that historically gets it the least: new parents. On average, moms get six hours of sleep a night, but not the kind of deep, consistent REM that recharges and reinvigorates; between the constant urgency to meet an infant’s needs—feeding, changing, comforting—they’re lucky to get subpar shut-eye in nickels and dimes. Over the course of weeks and months, which can eventually turn into years (see: postnatal depletion), chronic sleep deprivation can result in something renowned pediatrician—and goop moms swear, legit baby whisperer—Dr. Harvey Karp calls “drunk parenting.” The concept refers to a state of mind sleep-deprived parents (dads, too) reach when exhaustion becomes a trigger for the kind of forgetfulness, and sometimes depression, that’s not unlike being drunk. It’s at this point when out of sheer desperation some moms want to give up on breastfeeding altogether or may be tempted to bring their baby into bed with them, leaving him susceptible to accidental harm when parents fall asleep.

Snoo is Dr. Karp’s smart, app-operated intuitive sleeper launched last month after five years of testing and research, meant to serve as the baby’s main sleep space for the first six months of life. The bed was developed in partnership with legendary designer, and dad of four, Yves Béhar, to significantly improve baby’s sleep by prompting the natural calming reflex—the same reflex set off by Dr. Karp’s miracle-working 5 S’s, of which the Snoo is capable of performing three: swaddling, shushing, and swinging. (The other two are sucking and side position.) This combination closely mimics the womb, going hand-in-hand with the concept that human babies are born one trimester too early, while their heads are still small enough to safely pass through the birth canal, and that recreating a womb-like space for the “fourth trimester” is the safest (a built-in sleep sack keeps baby safely on his back all night long, but more on that later), most comforting environment for baby. The connection is pretty simple: More sleep for baby = more sleep for mom and dad, which consequently curbs new-parent exhaustion and helps prevent sleep-deprivation-induced unhealthy and potentially unsafe parenting decisions. Here, we asked Dr. Karp to shed some light on how exactly the Snoo works, to dole out some indispensable new-parent advice (hint: commit the 5 S’s to memory!), and speak some more to the short- and long-term positive effects of sleep training in the first six months of life.

A Q&A with Dr. Harvey Karp

Q

Bringing a new baby home for the first time can be daunting—any foundational tips for new parents?

A

Here are the basics:

  • Put off whatever responsibilities you can that are not directly giving love and care to your baby and your immediate family. This means slacking on the baby announcements, emails, and returning phone calls until you’re ready. Leave a nice outgoing message on your phone explaining that you’ll be in a love trance/marathon-feeding session for the next few weeks; people will understand.

  • Cook as much food as you can ahead of time and freeze it. Think lots of casseroles.

  • Don’t be embarrassed to take up friends and family on their offers to help. This is not so much to take care of the baby—you’ve got that covered—but to take care of you and the house: cleaning, cooking, laundry, etc.

  • Have your partner learn the 5 S’s. Guys tend to really master the steps and shine in the swaddling, swinging, and shushing departments. This way, one of you can be the crying/calming expert and the other becomes the feeding expert—it can be a very helpful division of labor.

Q

Why are the 5 S’s so effective—is there a priority order in terms of implementing them or are they all literally, the ultimate bag of tricks?

A

You always start with the swaddle (make sure the arms are down) and then you’ll see what add-ons work on your baby according to what they’re into. Babies respond to different combinations of the S’s: Some babies like to be swaddled with sound, others like to be swaddled with suck, and so on. Once you suss out the ideal combination, stick to it knowing that it’s not going to change.

Q

What was the impetus for creating Snoo?

A

With the 5 S’s people have become much more successful in calming their babies, but sleep was still an issue. So we wanted to create a device that can do some of the 5 S’s and respond to the baby throughout the night in a very sophisticated, intuitive way. When babies are upset, we automatically change our motions to more intense rocking and shushing—that’s what turns on the calming reflex, it’s what babies respond to. Snoo has the intelligence to rock broad and slow when the baby is sleeping, and knows to adjust to more jiggly motions when the baby is upset. Same goes for the sound: It transitions from low rumbling shushing to higher pitched shushing according to what the baby needs.

The truth is, if you really want to sleep a full eight hours a night, don’t have a baby! Snoo isn’t a magical fix-all and it by no means replaces a mother’s or father’s touch. Your baby will still cry and still need you. And it will take some time before he can sleep through the night. What Snoo will do, is teach your baby to self-soothe faster and become a better sleeper—within weeks they can learn to sleep more at night and be awake more during the day.

But perhaps most important of all, Snoo helps parents recognize their baby’s cues. For example: Is the baby crying from hunger? Dirty diaper? Gas? Colic? Sickness? To figure it out, a parent has to get up and go down the list. But what if you had a baby bed that responded to the baby’s cry? If he calms down in a minute, your head never has to leave the pillow because it’s clear that what he needed was a little more rocking and shushing.

However, if he doesn’t go back to sleep over the course of a minute, you know that what the baby needs is you to feed, change, or comfort him. After you’ve done all that, Snoo turns the 30- to 40-minute routine of putting the baby back to sleep into 3 minutes, effectively shortening the wakings. And those 30 minutes here and there all add up to a pretty precious gift.

Q

Can you go over the built-in safety features that make Snoo significantly safer than sleep training in a standard crib, bassinet, or swing?

A

The most important element that makes it so safe is that it keeps the baby on his back all night long. If you don’t do the swaddle really well, the baby starts to unravel, which makes them cry more, not less, and leaves them susceptible to rolling over onto their stomachs still swaddled—an even bigger risk than stomach sleeping is in general. Snoo has a specially designed sleep sack, which takes the place of a swaddle, that attaches right to the bed, completely eliminating the risk of the baby rolling over. There’s also the problem of making a too-tight swaddle, which can lead to permanent arthritis in the hips. Our sleep sack is completely safe for the hips and it can’t unravel, so you’re not waking up in the middle of the night to make sure the baby hasn’t gotten entangled in loose bedding, a very legitimate worry.

The white noise mechanism is safer, too. It is set exactly right to avoid unintentionally overexposing your baby to loud noise. While you do need a fairly loud sound when a baby is crying, you don’t need it to be as strong all night as the baby sleeps. Our noise machine knows to adapt itself to the baby, responding louder to crying—going up to around 85 decibels, about as loud as a hairdryer (for comparison, a baby’s cry is about 100 decibels)—then gradually quieting down as he falls asleep. That’s something a regular noise machine simply can’t do. If the baby doesn’t calm down in three minutes of intense shushing and tiny jiggles (don’t worry, it will never generate the kind of movement that can harm the baby), the bed shuts off completely, signaling that it’s your turn to see what your baby needs.

Around four or five months, once you’re ready to transition the baby from the constant motion to a standard crib, you can set the Snoo to weaning mode via the app. White noise, which is based on the sound your baby has grown accustomed to in the womb, should be kept around for the first year or so to prevent disturbances—both external (TV, passing trucks, pets) and internal (gas, hiccuping, growth spurts, teething) from interfering with baby’s sleep.

Q

We now know how important it is to get a lot of sleep—and the same obviously holds true for babies. Is it true that good sleep begets good sleep?

A

Exactly right. There was a study done at Penn State University that shows using good cues to get an infant sleeping better (the 5 S’s were included in the study) can reduce a baby’s risk of obesity later on. We also know that if as adults we don’t get enough sleep, we have a higher risk of obesity. In general, if you don’t get into good habits early on, it’s harder to get into them later and that ultimately has adverse health effects—and not just obesity: Attention deficit, learning disorders, and high blood pressure have all been associated with poor sleeping habits in early childhood.

Q

What are the tricks for getting your infant to sleep for longer periods throughout the night (and ultimately reaching the milestone of sleeping through the night)?

A

Of course, I have to say…use the Snoo! You’re giving the baby the cues that nature already perfected. Having said that, most people think sleeping through the night means sleeping six, seven, or even eight hours straight. No baby ever sleeps through the night, and neither does an adult—we all have little wakings, be it because the pillow fell off the bed, or you think you smell smoke in the house; once you see everything is okay, you go right back to sleep with no memory of waking up in the first place. The same goes for a baby: If he wakes up and everything is still the same, then he goes right back to sleep, unless there’s an actual need to be met. If he’s swaddled and has the same noise and motion from when he first fell asleep, he’s much less likely to fully wake up and cry. The ultimate goal is to enable your infant to sleep a good long stretch at night (say 11pm to 6am)—most people would call that success. In general, we say that it takes three to five months for that night-time sleep pattern (called Circadian rhythm) to develop. However, if you start Snoo from birth it usually takes just a day or two for babies to start sleeping better, and by the first or second month you can get five- to six-hour stretches of sleep. (You can also start Snoo later—up to about four months—although starting later means that the baby may need closer to five days to get accustomed to the new sensations.)

Q

There are a lot of myths about infants and sleep—any in particular that you’d love to bust?

A

  • Tiptoeing around a sleeping baby: There’s this misconception that your baby needs absolute silence to fall and/or stay sleep. What the baby is used to—and is most comfortable with—is the sound of the womb, which is as loud as a vacuum cleaner 24/7. So to keep a baby in a completely quiet room is the equivalent of sensory deprivation—the right amount of noise is an integral part of creating a sleep-friendly environment.

  • The nuclear family: The biggest lie for new parents is that it’s normal to raise a baby with just two partners; that’s never been the norm in human history, parents always had support. Up until one hundred years ago, everyone had a whole army of nannies—grandmothers, aunts, cousins, and neighbors. Parents today think that they don’t deserve support, that they should suck it up and do it all on their own. In reality, what parents are doing now is nothing short of heroic and they need to pat themselves on the back and accept that they deserve help. If you were to hire a teenage neighbor to rock your baby for two hours a day, just so you could get a little break, you would probably spend $20-30 just for that bit of support. Snoo is literally meant to provide the safest baby bed ever made, plus a 24/7 nanny, or a night nurse, for the first six months to all families, but at a cost of just $6.50 a day. And just like a nanny, it’s not going to replace the parents, but it will help them in a significant way.

  • Never wake a sleeping baby: You should always wake a sleeping baby! People say that letting a baby fall asleep in your arms or at the breast will cause dependency, but those scenarios are unavoidable. Let your baby fall asleep in your arms—make sure he is swaddled and have the sound machine going—then when you put the baby in bed, wake him up so he can learn to self-soothe and use those ten seconds to put himself back to sleep. It’s called the wake and sleep method.

Q

Have there been any surprising findings from the parents who have been testing Snoo in anticipation of launch?

A

What’s been surprising is that the Snoo quickly makes parents feel smarter—like they have a better understanding of what their baby is telling them. That’s something I didn’t quite anticipate. Also, I have been impressed that guys are huge fans of Snoo—they love that it helps them protect their baby with the safest sleep, protect their spouse by giving her the sleep she needs, and protect themselves by getting the sleep they need to avoid falling ill or getting into car accidents. For them, Snoo solves all these safety problems in one fell swoop.

For women, there is so much guilt when they become mothers—this idea that they should be doing everything themselves, but no one ever did everything—they’re supposed to have help. Once they get over the initial reaction that it’s all on them, and accept that they’re entitled to some help, it’s a huge relief!

Q

Are there any risks with WiFi in a baby’s room, either from something like a baby monitor, or something like Snoo?

A

Great question. We’ve tested the Snoo with three independent labs to show that there’s no added radiation exposure to the baby. In addition to that, as an additional precaution, we’ve put in a special metal shield that blocks 99.9% of WiFi radiation for extra peace of mind.

Dr. Harvey Karp is a nationally renowned pediatrician, child development specialist, and Assistant Professor of Pediatrics at the USC School of Medicine. He completed medical school training at Albert Einstein College of Medicine in NYC, pediatric residency at Children’s Hospital of Los Angeles, and fellowships in ambulatory pediatrics and child development at UCLA. In pediatric practice, for almost thirty years, Dr. Karp has taught thousands of parents his secrets for soothing colic, boosting infant sleep, reducing tantrums, promoting patience and…making parents and children happy.

The views expressed in this article intend to highlight alternative studies and induce conversation. They are the views of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of goop, and are for informational purposes only, even if and to the extent that this article features the advice of physicians and medical practitioners. This article is not, nor is it intended to be, a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment, and should never be relied upon for specific medical advice.

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