Celebrity doc Harvey Karp has been called the "Baby Whisperer" for helping superstar moms like Madonna soothe fussy infants with the ballyhooed "5S" method:
Swaddling them in a blanket. Holding them on their side or stomach. Making a shushing noise. Swinging them back and forth in your arms. And letting them suck on something, like a pacifier.
Thousands of parents swear by it, and a local pediatrician at Children's Hospital of The King's Daughters decided to put it to the scientific test with 240 babies facing routine immunization shots.
The journal Pediatrics released Dr. John Harrington's peer-reviewed study today, which shows that the method calms babies and reduces pain.
The babies who received the 5S treatment calmed faster than a control group of infants who received a dose of sugar solution, a known pain reliever often used in pediatric offices.
Harrington said he no longer uses the sugar solution but instead explains the 5S technique to parents.
"At first, we were thinking, 'It can't be that easy,' but it really was. Instead of telling parents, 'Here's something you can give your baby, we can say, 'Here's something you can do to help them.' "
A pacifier and a shushing noise beats giving stressed babies sugar to soothe them, a pattern no parent wants to begin with a childhood obesity epidemic raging across America.
Harrington got the idea for the study when Karp visited the area several years ago. Karp is nationally known for his best-selling "Happiest Baby on the Block" book and DVDs. The Los Angeles doctor teaches at the University of Southern California and gives workshops across the globe on how to trigger the "calming reflex" in colicky babies.
He spoke at CHKD several years ago, and Harrington asked whether there had been any scientific study of the 5S method.
There hadn't been.
"I'm an evidence-based kind of guy," Harrington said.
He was skeptical of the idea, so he set about designing a study to test it. The study was funded through the Summer Scholars Program, a research internship offered by Eastern Virginia Medical School and CHKD.
During the summer of 2010, Harrington and EVMS medical residents watched Karp's video and learned to swaddle a baby in less than 15 seconds and make the proper "shushing noise," which is supposed to mimic sounds a baby hears while in the womb.
The babies were 2 to 4 months old and received routine immunizations at well-baby visits in Norfolk. One group received a sugar solution to relieve pain. Another group received the 5S method. A third had a placebo water solution. And a fourth group had both the sugar solution and the 5S treatment.
The medical residents, who became experts at the swaddling technique, performed the 5S method on the babies. They used a scientific pain-measurement score to gauge the babies' pain at intervals up to five minutes after the shots. They also measured the length of crying.
The babies who had the 5S treatment stopped crying sooner and scored lower on the pain measurements. The children who did not receive the 5S treatment were calmer with the sugar doses than water placebos. There was no difference between the babies who received 5S alone and those who received both 5S and the sugar dose.
Dr. Ari Brown, a Texas pediatrician who was not involved in the study, said it suggests that physically soothing babies is more effective than giving them sugar.
She said she doesn't think it means Karp's method is superior to other methods that parents have been using for years, though. Brown, the author of the book "Baby 411," said she would have liked to see other options explored, such as breast-feeding after the shot.
"New parents can be taught some simple maneuvers that reliably work to soothe babies," she said in an email response. "Pediatricians all know these tricks... we just need to teach moms and dads how to do it!"
Indeed, many of the parents who watched the EVMS residents who swaddled, shushed and swung their babies said, "Wow, can you teach me how to do that?"
One of the drawbacks, though, is that the babies outgrow the method pretty quickly, Harrington said. By the time a parent perfects it, the baby's too big to swaddle.
Until then, though, Harrington said the 5S method can "help you bond with your child and make you feel like a good parent."
Elizabeth Simpson, 757-446-2635, email@example.com