A household name for over a decade, Dr. Harvey Karp has helped millions of parents navigate the demanding and often difficult aspects of the baby years. For new moms and dads, Karp’s now classic books and DVDs—The Happiest Baby on the Block and The Happiest Toddler on the Block—have taught them how to successfully swaddle, shush and swing their babies into relaxed bliss, and communicate with their toddlers in a way that actually works. For some families, Karp’s techniques have been the key to achieving domestic tranquility—those elusive moments of peace. For others, it has brought them back from the brink of exhaustion and misjudgment, allowing them to function as the parents they want to be.
Married for 14 years to his wife, Nina, Karp was raised in Queens and attended Albert Einstein College of Medicine in the Bronx. Now, with nearly 30 years of pediatric experience under his belt, a pair of books that have been translated into more than 20 different languages and a “Super-Soothing” Sleep Sounds CD (soon to be released on iTunes), Karp continues to spread his words of wisdom to parents across the globe through lectures and education outreach programs.
With his enormous and enduring influence, some have compared Karp to a latter day Dr. Spock. Karp himself however, still seems like the hardworking and humble pediatrician he’s always been, only now he has a platform to help spread the word on important issues like shaken baby syndrome and postpartum depression, while teaching parents everywhere to “shush” with the skill of a Jewish grandmother.
When did you first realize that your methods for quieting babies and communicating with toddlers were working? Did you have an “aha” moment?
I was studying childhood development at UCLA and I learned about a tribe in Southern Africa where the parents could calm their crying babies in under a minute. I had been taught that some babies could cry two, three or four hours a day… So when I learned that there were people in Africa who were so much more successful than we were in our culture, that was an “aha” moment for me. I realized either those children are different from our children or those parents know something that we had forgotten in our culture. And that really set me off with understanding how babies work, which led to another “aha” moment which was that babies have a reflex—a calming reflex that no one knew about before—that is a virtual “off” switch for crying and “on” switch for sleep. And that’s really the basis of my Happiest Baby work, the key concept of which is that babies are born three months too soon.
Tell us more.
You don’t need to make your baby independent right away. You don’t need to make them feel like they’re not the center of attention. They need to be the center of attention! Because we evict them from the uterus three months before they’re ready, the least we can do is hold them and rock them and feed them a lot.
What inspired you to create The Happiest Baby on the Block and The Happiest Toddler on the Block books and DVDs and to spread the knowledge of your techniques?
As a pediatrician, I saw that I was giving parents tools that were helpful—so it was a natural desire to reach even more parents. I also came to realize that through teaching my own patients, just telling people what to do as one might through a book, isn’t enough. You have to demonstrate it. I also wanted to get dads more involved, and dads were much more likely to watch a half hour video than to read a 300-page parenting book. All parents struggle to find the time. It’s hard to find time to get through that type of reading, and we’re a TV generation!
Have you ever encountered a baby you couldn’t calm?
What I’ve found is that if these techniques don’t work for babies, 95% of the time it’s because they’re not being done correctly. But if everything is done correctly and it’s still not working, then the child needs a medical evaluation, because the likely reason for crying is that there is something physical. But the biggest reason the Happiest Baby work is popular with parents actually has nothing to do with crying babies. It has to do with sleep! Parents can get an extra hour or two of sleep at night.
Tell us about your work with toddlers.
When a toddler is happy, your voice gets happy too. With young children though, when they’re upset, we actually do the opposite. Most parents become more calm and quiet and reserved, like we’re trying to convince them into being more calm, which makes children actually feel worse. It makes them scream louder. Or they listen to us and they calm down but they keep those feelings inside and they grow up thinking that nobody wants to hear how angry they are or how they feel. And that’s a very unhealthy way to grow up. When kids are very happy we naturally use “toddlerese.” We say, “Oh that’s great! You did it! Good job!” But when they’re unhappy we develop an unhealthy way of interacting with them… What’s important is nonverbal communication and speaking to a young child with more emotion in your voice when they’re upset. You mirror about 30% of their emotion.
What do you like most about working with children?
It’s just so much fun. I’m not in practice anymore though. I stopped that six years ago because my travel and writing schedules were so demanding. But seeing 20 little kids every day, who I can build confidence with and build relationships with, is just great. As a doctor, it’s such a privileged position because people invite you into the deepest part of their family, and so that was the most gratifying part of being a doctor and the hardest part for me not to have anymore.
What is a typical day like for you?
A typical day for me is eight hours of writing. But I’ll usually spend a couple of hours speaking to medical and educational professionals across the country. Actually, one of the interesting things about my Happiest Baby work is finding out about the very high incidences of postpartum depression. It’s about 15% of all new mothers (and 25-50% of their partners), half-a-million women a year. The main triggers for postpartum depression are crying babies, exhaustion and unsupportive partners. All three of those are directly improved through the Happiest Baby work. That’s one of the main reasons we started the Happiest Baby Educator Program about six years ago. We now have 2,600 educators across the country and in other nations, and we’re training another 2,000 right now to work in hospitals and clinics and military bases all across the country.
What future challenges do you see for pediatric medicine?
I always joke that you have to take classes to get a driver’s license. But there’s no education needed to have a child. Well, now there is the education. We have Happiest Baby classes. While most of the training we get is to do well in school and to do well in the work place, that has nothing to do with young children. That skill set of reasonableness, of logic, of compromise is great for using with little kids when they’re calm and happy, but when they’re upset and there’s conflict, it actually becomes counterproductive.
Tell me about your family. Has your step-daughter Lexi been involved in your work?
I think it influenced her quite a bit. She’s studying psychology and neuroscience at Columbia. And she wants to write The Happiest Teenager on the Block with me! I think it’s influenced her to have good communication skills and she has great talents that she gets from her mother in being a real people person.
What is the best piece of parenting advice you’ve ever received? What about the worst advice?
The best is: don’t go to bed mad. Work things out. Even if you agree to disagree, do it in such a way that you don’t have to go to sleep with hostility. And the worst has to do with discipline; it’s that kids need to be intimidated… With each generation we learn new things. Spanking is an old, ancient way of disciplining through intimidation, but ultimately it’s a dead-end street… I mean, nobody wants to hit their kid. If they had a simple way that would work, I don’t think anyone would hit their kids. And so my job now is letting people know the ways that exist.
To learn more about Dr. Karp, visit happiestbaby.com.