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Pediatrician Harvey Karp reassures anxious parents with his surefire methods for calming their infants
Story by Lyndon Stambler; photo by Max S. Gerber
At 10 weeks, Willamina Gerber looks healthy enough, with soft skin, downy hair, alert eyes–and a cry like a fire engine. For pediatrician Harvey Karp, BA ’72, who has calmed thousands of babies, soothing Willamina should pose no problem. But at a photo shoot in Karp ’s Los Angeles office, a photographer wants to place the 14–pound baby on a cold glass table and make it look like she’s having fun. Willamina is fussy, so Karp applies the “Five S’s” he popularized in his 2002 best–selling DVD and book, “The Happiest Baby on the Block.” He swaddles Willamina in a polka–dot blanket, shushes in her ear, cradles her on her side and swings her gently. She sucks on a bottle and calms down. But when Karp unwraps and readies Willamina for her close–up, she whimpers. He repeats the Five S’s until her arms flop trance–like to her sides.
“Parents who follow these specific techniques see dramatic changes in their child’s behavior in days or less.”
Karp honed his baby calming skills during his 30–year practice, ministering to children of regular folks and, yes, to the children of many LA–rooted celebrities (Madonna, Pierce Brosnan). He’s known as a “baby whisperer” and toddler tamer, and called his 2004 DVD and book, “The Happiest Toddler on the Block.”
The books offer straightforward paradigms. Babies are born three months before they’re fully ready for the world and, mimicking womb sensations, Karp discovered, activates a previously unknown calming reflex that switches off crying and switches on sleep. Toddlers are more like cavemen than humans; thus, short, repetitive commands stop tantrums faster than reasoning with them.
With his brown hair and sparkling smile, Karp seems younger than his 58 years. “I think of you as 8,” a friend told him at his last birthday party. “I’m a kid,“ Karp admits. “Maintaining a sense of playfulness throughout our lifetime is one of the great gifts given to human beings.”
But the blue ribbon he wears to raise awareness about child abuse underscores the seriousness of his work: Teaching parents to soothe their babies prevents child abuse. His shelves are lined with his books translated into 20 languages. Karp, who gave up his star–studded practice, is driven more by conscience than by fame. “What motivates me are the millions of children worldwide, whose poor sleep and persistent screaming are a huge burden for them and their families,” he says. “It provokes serious public health issues like abuse, depression and even crib death. I hope that my work is a tiny step to strengthen the family fabric.”
Louise Mark, a Virginia–based RN and “Happiest Baby” educator who has worked with drug–addicted mothers and their babies, has seen Karp’s impact firsthand. “When I saw him wrap these kids up and shushed them and they stopped screaming immediately, I got a chill,” she says.
Last fall, he brought his message to the University at Buffalo, receiving the Distinguished Alumni Award from the College of Arts and Sciences. It was his first visit since his 1972 graduation. Memories flooded Karp: students dressed in bellbottoms, jeans jackets and tie–dye, protesting against the Vietnam War. “You remember feelings: nighttime, crowds, jumping the dead car battery in the dead of winter.”
Karp, the son of an engineer and a homemaker, took action on social issues as a child in Queens. In 1960, at the age of 9, he posted his hand–drawn “Kennedy for President” signs. He tutored underprivileged kids, worked in student government and joined a Students for a Democratic Society chapter at Bayside High. He dreamed of becoming a doctor. When he graduated, he chose UB, along with 110 other students from Bayside High. With a New York Regent’s Scholarship in hand, he took his first airplane flight in 1968 to begin his higher education.
During the marches on Washington in 1970, Karp bused down with hundreds of students. Following the May 4 shootings at Kent State, Karp became a strike captain at UB, occupying the administration building, as Buffalo police officers fired tear gas and pellets at students.
“A running thread in my life is not bowing to authority,” says Karp, who also participated in the first Earth Day in 1970, foreshadowing his national leadership in protecting children from chemicals.
Amid the turmoil, he earned his BA in biology. Prof. Gordon Swartz’s embryology course introduced Karp to concepts that inspired his thinking. Swartz, who regaled students with his boxing tales, taught Karp that “ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny”— meaning the development of the individual echoes the evolution of the species. In “The Happiest Toddler on the Block,” Karp concludes that toddlers are passing through a primitive phase.
Another highlight for Karp was joining the fencing team. While receiving the award last fall, he donned his fencing sweater. “It looked like a brand new vintage sweater and it probably fit him as well as it did then,” says Guy Tomassi, the College of Arts and Sciences development director instrumental in bringing Karp back to UB.
Karp continued his social awareness at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine, where he earned his medical degree, and discovered his life’s work when he visited the pediatrics ward at Jacobi Medical Center in the Bronx. “There were kids with sickle cell anemia, meningitis and other serious problems standing in their cribs, rocking and bouncing to ‘Soul Train’ on TV,” he recalls. “They were so full of life. It was exciting to help them heal.”
He was hooked on kids. He didn’t have a child biologically, but he helped raise his wife Nina Montée’s daughter, Lexi, now 26, from her 8th year. “I was fortunate because I got to be around dozens of young children every day during my practice.”
He completed his residency at Children’s Hospital in Los Angeles. “It was a cathedral of caring about helping children in need,” he says. And he followed with a combined fellowship at UCLA in child development and ambulatory pediatrics, educating pediatricians about child development.
He probably would have gone into academia had he not suffered a minor heart attack at the age of 29. He was hospitalized. Instead of stents and statins (which didn’t exist) he went on a diet rich in omega–3s. “It was an important wake–up call for me,” recalls Karp, who finally underwent bypass surgery a few years ago.
Karp went into private practice. He keeps mementos from his practice, including a framed Life magazine about natural childbirth from 1950 with the headline, “Mothers Actually Conscious During Delivery!” and a photo of a baby breast–feeding. Karp was medical adviser to UCLA’s breast–feeding center. “Breastfeeding was almost lost and forgotten in the mid–1950s when everyone switched to artificial formula,” he says.
He became intrigued by reports of the ability of the bushmen in southern Africa to calm their fussy babies in less than one minute. “Either the bushman babies were mutant or they knew something that we had forgotten in our own culture,” he says.
As Karp perfected his 5 S’s approach, his popularity in Los Angeles ballooned. “One of the great privileges about being a pediatrician is that you’re invited into people’s families in the most intimate way,” he says.
He wanted toddlers to enjoy office visits. He insisted on half–hour checkups, rather than 15 minutes, developing a relationship with each child. He gained a reputation for his work with doctor-phobic toddlers. “I was terrible at winning over women in college but it turns out I was pretty darn good at winning over reluctant toddlers,” he jokes
Then, in 2000, after 20 years of refining his ideas, Karp wrote a proposal for what would eventually become America’s No. 1 parenting guide. Armed with a videotape displaying his “magic,” he drew bids from 10 publishers and signed a $1.1 million, two–book deal.
“People joke that kids don’t come with instructions but now they do,” Karp says. “Parents who follow these specific techniques see dramatic changes in their child’s behavior in days or less.”
Karp’s press material includes glowing comments from such luminaries as Julius Richmond, a past U.S. Surgeon General: “Dr. Karp’s work is fascinating. I believe it will reassure and guide new parents for many years to come.”
He appeared on national shows, like “Good Morning America” and “Dr. Phil.” His work has entered the zeitgeist as a question on “Jeopardy” and a story line on “Ugly Betty.” And The New York Times compared him to Dr. Benjamin Spock. Says Karp: “Dr. Spock was a giant of his time. I am thrilled to have the chance to help hardworking parents succeed.”
He regrets leaving his practice, “It was my identity and my social network and my daily dopamine rush.” But, as his father says in Yiddish: “One tuchas can’t sit on all the seats.”
Nevertheless, Karp recognizes his influence and hopes to handle it wisely. He’s turned down many endorsement offers to preserve his credibility and usefulness in the lives of parents. “I thought when the first book was published, that would be it,” he says. “Game over. People would read it and our culture would be put back on track. But I learned that even when a profound new idea was released—like the explanation and cure for colic—it takes a concerted effort to get the message out.”
He created a network of 3,500 Happiest Baby educators. Health departments from Pennsylvania to Minnesota have adopted his programs. Karp hopes to do the same with his “Happiest Toddler” techniques. The ideas expressed in the book, along with the related classes and creation of the Happiest Toddler Network, are “going to be my greatest legacy,” he predicts, and others agree.
“Parents will be delighted by this clever approach to communicating with toddlers,” says Janet Serwint, MD, professor of pediatrics and director of pediatric resident education, Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine.
Teresa Olsen, program director of child abuse education for the Pennsylvania chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics, has been a Happiest Baby educator for four years. She says the toddler techniques work well for her five–year–old son Luke—and on husbands. “Dr. Karp is an answer to a lot of parents' prayers,” she says. “Give me something that works and that is simple. Watching the DVD, you feel like you’re having a cup of coffee with him.”
Bill Meyer, associate clinical professor in psychiatry and OB/GYN at Duke University, has seen Karp’s methods help women with postpartum depression. “If you can provide a tool that suddenly calms the infant, that in turn gives the mother more sleep and confidence,” says Meyer, who has facilitated a postpartum depression support group for two decades.
These days, Karp is beginning to apply his techniques to children with language disorders, mental retardation and autism. He spoke about the benefits of immunizations on “Larry King,” challenging the hypothetical connections between immunizations and autism.
And this year, he and his producer–director wife have ventured into a new field, releasing a five-hour DVD titled “Breast Cancer: The Path of Wellness & Healing.” It offers the latest information about healing from breast cancer—body, mind and spirit—and features interviews with top doctors like Susan Love and Dean Ornish, celebrity survivors like Sheryl Crow and Christina Applegate, and spiritual advisers like Deepak Chopra. The profits of this work will be donated to Breastcancer.org and UCLA ’s Jonsson Comprehensive Cancer Center. “It isn’t just a medical piece,” Karp says. “It’s the whole gestalt about how one heals.”
Karp’s ideas—often written on scraps of paper—keep coming, from planned books about childhood sleep to the evolution of human intelligence. He ’s a leading advocate on protecting children from harmful chemicals. Along with Robert F. Kennedy Jr. and others, he helped rally hundreds of thousands of protesters on the Capital Mall during the 30th anniversary of Earth Day in 2000. A 2007 op-ed piece he co-authored in the Los Angeles Times about the dangers of phthalates catalyzed congressional legislation that banned them from children’s products. Karp also hopes to encourage the banning of bisphenol A, a synthetic estrogen used in carbonless copy paper, canned food and baby bottles. “We know from many research studies that these chemicals have an effect on the developing fetus and child, and probably on the adult as well, increasing the risk of breast cancer and obesity,” says Karp.
As the 40th Earth Day approaches, Karp continues to focus on issues affecting children that have been ignored. In his office, he displays a painting of a husband and wife with their child on their shoulders. The child points to a green and blue earth in a velvety universe. His work is about human interconnectedness.
“It’s seeing the unity rather than the divisions, whether it’s the unity of us with nature, or the unity of America with other nations or inner city with suburbia. It’s all a matter of raised consciousness.”
Lyndon Stambler is a LA–based writer and journalism professor at Santa Monica College who has contributed to The New York Times and the Los Angeles Times.
Harvey Karp’s Web site contains plentiful resources for parents and other family members. See excerpts from his books and DVDs, “The Happiest Baby on the Block” and “The Happiest Toddler on the Block.” And learn more about his techniques, products, classes and public appearances.
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