Family Matters

Q&A: Happiest Baby Author, Dr. Harvey Karp, on Getting Your Baby to Sleep

The author of the Happiest Baby on the Block series is hitting the big screen on Thursday night to tutor parents on how to get their babies to sleep early and often.

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Parents wonder about lots of things — when to start solid foods, how to soothe their babies, when to ditch diapers and tackle potty training. But the biggest bugaboo, speaking from personal experience, is sleep. How much do babies need? And why don’t they seem to be getting it?

On Thursday night, in more than 500 movie theaters across the country, from Union Square Stadium 14 in New York City to AMC Century City 15 in Los Angeles, Dr. Harvey Karp — described in promotional materials as “America’s favorite pediatrician” — will flicker onto the silver screen to host an evening dubbed as “Parent’s Night Out.” The name of the event is, in my opinion, a bit off. Shouldn’t Parent’s Night Out conjure up images of Appletinis and baked Brie, not more hours spent wondering what makes our little ones tick? No matter.

Karp, author of the best-selling The Happiest Baby on the Block and its sequel, The Happiest Toddler on the Block, has a new addition to his pediatric pantheon. It’s called The Happiest Baby Guide to Great Sleep, and it tackles strategies for lulling kids from birth to age 5 off to dreamland. At 7:30 p.m. local time, he’ll be sharing sleepytime tips as well as offering insight into his franchise, which involves how to get babies to stop fussing.

“It’s kind of like a house call to the nation,” says Karp.

(MORE: A History of Kids and Sleep: Why They Never Get Enough)

The event, sponsored by BabyCenter, SwaddleDesigns and NCM Fathom Event, will feature a live screening of Karp doling out doctorly advice, which will then be broadcast to these theaters. It will be emceed by former Miss USA Ali Landry, a mom of two. Landry, who has founded a new product rating site called, is a Happiest Baby acolyte. “My husband and I use Dr. Karp’s advice every single day! It has been a total lifesaver!” Landry gushed in a press release.

Karp counts other celebrity moms and pops among those he’s helped — stars including Madonna, Michelle Pfeiffer, Larry David and Jewel. His most notable claim to fame has been his ability to demystify the techniques — some used for centuries — that tend to calm a crying baby. He calls them the five S’s, which he says activate an infant’s calming reflex: swaddling; placing the baby on its side or stomach; using “shushing” sounds; swinging; and sucking. Parents have already been doing much of this for decades, but Karp ingeniously packaged it all together, promoting the idea that all babies — not just preemies — are in effect born too soon: “Babies are missing the rhythms of the womb that literally turn on a reflex that is an off-switch for crying and an on-switch for sleep. Your baby needs a fourth trimester, and you are basically a walking uterus.”

Since his first book came out a decade ago, he’s cobbled together an empire of products. In addition to books, there are DVDs and 2,600 certified Happiest Baby educators and soundtracks of various kinds of white noise that he recommends to help babies sleep — including an eight-minute track titled “strong hair dryer — perfect for frantic babies,” a peaceful selection called “rain on the roof” and a mystery track described as “fast and vigorous — this ‘strange’ sound gets a crying baby’s attention.”

Now, with his Guide to Great Sleep, Karp — dad to a 28-year-old — takes on what a BabyCenter survey found is the top desire of parents, beating out wishes for both more time and more money: more sleep. Tired moms reported feeling frustrated (58%), irritable (78%), unable to focus at work (37%) and distant from their spouse (35%). Below, Karp shares some advice so that both parents and their children can sleep like babies:

(MORE: Never Wake a Sleeping Baby: Why Depressed Moms Don’t Follow that Advice)

Healthland: So, what’s the trick to getting babies to sleep better?
Karp: Everyone says there’s nothing you can do for three to four months, then the main technique is “cry it out” or sleep training. Of course you can teach a newborn baby how to sleep better. Doctors say don’t rock your baby to sleep because the baby won’t learn to self-soothe. But you can’t stop a baby from falling asleep in your arms. Doctors are making parents so neurotic. Let your babies fall asleep — but wake them up before putting them down.

When can you start trying to mold an infant’s sleep habits?
You can and should work on improving baby’s sleep from the first weeks of life using snug swaddling and the right type of white noise, rough and rumbling. These things are for all sleep and cry periods. White noise is for the entire first year of life. It helps turn on the calming reflex.

What kind of white noise works?
High-pitched sounds get your attention; low-pitched sounds like the rumble of a plane calm you. Most of the white noise people use is the white noise that annoys. For calming crying babies, we need a mix of high and low pitch. White noise should sound a like soft shower.

Will you spill the secret of getting babies to sleep through the night?
No one ever sleeps through the night. We all wake up. The goal is to teach [babies] how to put themselves back to sleep. So always wake them when putting them in bed. And remember that bedtime starts after breakfast. The things you do during the day have an effect on how a child sleeps at night. So much has focused on the routine right before bed. But you need sunlight exposure and enough calories during the day. You need to dim the lights an hour before bedtime to get your melatonin going. For toddlers, use a beddie-bye book. Make your own book with photos of your bedtime routine – brushing teeth, putting on pajamas.

What’s this advice about Twinkle Interruptus? What is it?
You can use Twinkle Interruptus instead of cry it out. During the day, you teach patience-stretching techniques. You start using white noise in the bedroom to block out the sounds of the house. At bedtime, you snuggle up and read stories. Then you say, Hold on, I have to go see Daddy, and you go out for a few seconds, snuggle up again, then go out again and stay out for 15 seconds, then later on for 30 seconds. What happens is that after two or three nights, your child falls asleep while you’re out of the room. You can do this from age 1 on.

What’s your background with babies and sleep?
As a pediatrician, I was seeing kids who were crying and not sleeping well every single day. In my training in child development, I learned about a tribe called the !Kung who are in South Africa. They had been studied by anthropologists. They can calm their crying babies in under a minute 95% of the time. I had been taught in my training that some babies cry for three hours and they grow out of it at about four months — it’s just colic.

When I learned about the !Kung, I realized it didn’t make sense that !Kung babies could be calmed so quickly, but our babies cried for hours at a time. If you speak to 10 parents, they will give you 20 different tricks — putting baby on top of the dryer, going on a car ride, dancing to the Rolling Stones. There is all this folklore, but it’s contradictory. I wanted to make sense of it.

Are you still in practice? That must be cool to say, My pediatrician is the Happiest Baby doctor.
I left practice five years ago to dedicate myself to the mission of educating people about these techniques [the 5 S’s]. It’s really a public-health initiative to decrease child abuse and postpartum depression. I’m working harder now than I ever did in practice.

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