Why the “5 S’s” don’t always work

During his newborn weeks, his dad and I followed the methods found in Dr. Karp’s The Happiest Baby on the Block book and DVD and found amazing results. It really does work; a newborn baby just isn’t ready to enter the world and is comforted by an environment that mimics the womb as much as possible. So whenever the baby would fuss or cry, we implemented the “five S’s” (swaddle, side or stomach, shush, swing and suck) and he would stop crying almost immediately.

Months later with the baby clear of his newborn stage, we now have to wean him from each one of those miracle workers. Hence begins our love-hate relationship with the five S’s:

Swaddling
Swaddling was great for him, whose arms and legs would flail everywhere, knocking him awake and frustrating him even more. So we wrapped him up in a tight blanket like a little cocoon, and he felt safe and snug like he was back in the womb.

Eventually though, we had to wean him from the swaddle because he physically outgrew them and would burst out of his straitjacket like a magician. But he still wasn’t ready to go cold turkey on his back (or at least, we never really tried), so what did we do? We put him to sleep on his tummy. Great, another sleep method we’ll eventually have to wean in the future. Thanks, swaddling.

Side or stomach
Newborn babies tend to hush up immediately after you hold them on their side or stomach because when they’re on their backs, they still have the Moro reflex that makes them think they’re falling. But hold them sideways or on their stomach, and they feel snug and connected to gravity.

As I mentioned above, we turned to tummy sleeping once swaddling wasn’t an option anymore. He still can’t sleep on his back (that’s going to change soon as we help him learn to sleep on his own later this week) so for now he sleeps on his tummy. Thanks, side or stomach.

Shushing
During their 40 weeks in the womb, newborns are surrounded by the loud, whooshing noises of the mother’s blood flowing and her heart beat steadily thumping. So when newborns are out in the world and are faced with still silence, it actually freaks them out. Parents are then advised to “shush” their newborns very loudly and near their ears, loud enough to hear above the baby’s already loud cries. So we did, and it worked: he was reminded of the sounds he was familiar with and was comforted. This is probably the origins of why we say “sshh” to others when requesting them to be quiet.

And while it seems harmless, try going “ssssshhhhhhh” for 10 plus minutes for each nap and bedtime, and you’ll easily see why I can’t wait until I don’t have to do this anymore. This doesn’t even include the static white noise that he sleeps with, another one of the shushing tricks. That one I’m more forgiving of, but it’d also be great if I didn’t have to sleep with static blaring out of the speakers. And that’s saying a lot, considering that before I would drive his dad crazy for demanding to sleep with a fan turned on for subtle white noise. Subtle though is the keyword, not blaring. Thanks, shushing.

Swinging
Ahh, my favorite one, the swing (or motion in general, e.g. rocking). Living in the womb is a bumpy ride. Every movement a pregnant woman makes rocks the baby inside, and his world is thus filled with plenty of motion. So when a newborn is crying frantically, we rock them to comfort, creating that same environment they were used to. They love it, and…they get used to it.

Rocking him to sleep is my least-favored task of all the child-rearing things I have to do. It’s great to do once in a while, but to have to do it is painful. It’s the main way he falls asleep, so we are pretty much bound to rocking and bouncing him in order for him to knock out (until we start sleep learning on Thursday). Ideally, I’d like to reserve rocking him to sleep when we are out and about and I wouldn’t have a crib or bed to lay him down on. For instance, let’s say we’re out at a store; I wouldn’t mind rocking him to fall asleep in my arms in that situation. But as the main method of falling asleep even at home? I’ll pass. Thanks, swinging.

Sucking
One of the reflexes newborns enter the world with is sucking, for obvious survival reasons: they need to eat. This sucking motion soothes them so much that they can fall asleep easily. It’s also the reason why babies and toddlers suck their thumbs.

While rocking is the main way he falls asleep, sucking or breastfeeding is the second method that knocks him out. I don’t mind this so much anymore, and in fact am secretly glad when he falls asleep while eating because that means I don’t have to bounce him! But we will have to wean him from this sleep association as well if we want him to learn how to fall asleep on his own. Thanks, sucking.

So how does a baby learn to fall asleep on his own? We all have skills within us that help us fall asleep, babies (over 4 months and 15 pounds) included. For them, that might mean moving their head side to side, scooting themselves in a comfortable position, sucking their hand, or talking themselves to sleep. But these skills can only emerge when parents give them the chance to develop them. In the first few weeks and months, babies aren’t able to do any of that, and are still too similar to the fetus that they were in the womb. That’s why the 5 S’s worked so well; babies just weren’t ready to leave the womb yet and needed their parents to recreate that environment. But once they get older, they have the skills to do it on their own and just need the chance to put them to practice.

Dear five S’s, thank you for all you have done for us and for saving our sanity when he was very young. But now, it’s time to say good bye to each of you—swaddling (check), stomach, shushing, swinging and sucking—and go our separate ways.

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