By David Rosenfeld
When Cheryl Petran had a three-month old baby that just wouldn’t stop crying, she journeyed down to The Pump Station in Santa Monica, a resource for parents with newborns. One of the first things someone handed her was a book by Dr. Harvey Karp called Happiest Baby on the Block.
“I can honestly say his techniques saved my life,” Petran says about the experience more than five years later. “From my own perspective, it was amazing.”
Karp had been a local pediatrician for 20 years and knew the founders of The Pump Station before putting out the book in 2003 so there was a local connection. But by the time Petran came across the title, Karp’s book and its companion DVD was already a bestseller known for its simple common sense solutions to an age-old problem.
Petran is now the chief executive of The Pump Station and Karp lives in Brentwood where he directs what has become a worldwide educational program built around Happiest Baby on the Block and his newest title Happiest Toddler on the Block. On the Westside, Karp is largely known as a pediatrician to the stars, among them Jewell, Madonna and Pierce Brosnan.
His easy-to-follow techniques for newborns have earned him widespread praise and spots on all the major television networks over the years for the method he calls the Five Ss, which stand for swaddling, shushing, swinging, side/stomach position and sucking.
It sounds simple, and each of these techniques alone is not new in themselves, but Karp’s been able to present them in a way that makes sense and that’s backed up by science. Petran says she’s seen countless parents benefit from the DVD, which not only leads to a happy baby, but happy and stress-free parents.
“If people ask me what’s the one thing you should buy a new parent I say Happiest Baby on the Block,” Petran says. “There are a lot of things you need, but that by far is the most powerful thing we have at the PUMP station.”
For as long as people have walked the planet, babies have likely kept parents up at night. And for equally about as long, it’s probably safe to say, parents have developed methods to keep them quiet. So it’s no small wonder that Karp was able to take an age-old practice of calming a baby and present it in a new way.
“What I learned to do as a pediatrician is take science and filter it out so you get rid of the stuff that doesn’t make sense that doesn’t sound reasonable and convert it to language people can understand,” Karp says. “A good pediatrician is a translator.”
Karp feels like people in the modern age have lost much of the knowledge that used to be passed down among cultures. For instance, Mongolians and Native Americans would swaddle their babies 24 hours a day for the first six months. Much of that changed in modern society with ideas of democracy, Karp says.
“In Western Europe as we developed ideas of democracy we thought, ‘Why should we put our children in bondage?’ Right about that time we started treating them with gin and opium because they were crying a lot more,” Karp says.
Feeding babies opium continued into the 1970s. But even as the practice ended, the idea continued that certain babies just couldn’t be calmed.
“We doctors are taught that 15 percent of our babies will cry for more than three hours per day and we call it colic,” says Karp from his home in Brentwood. “And we say we don’t know what causes colic. It’s a mystery.”
Karp began to question this assertion. In the 1990s he learned of a hunter-gatherer tribe in South Africa that could calm their babies 95 percent of the time within just a few minutes.
“I looked at this tribe of people and thought either those babies are mutant babies or those parents knew something that we had forgotten in our culture,” Karp said. “It didn’t make sense that you couldn’t calm a completely healthy baby. So that got me into the issue.”
What he discovered was a scientific basis for why some of these age-old methods actually worked, and it basically came down to mimicking the conditions of the womb. Swaddling resembles the compact space. Turning babies on their side and stomach resembles the changing positioning within the womb.
“I explored this over the next 10 to 20 years of practice and came to realize there was never a baby I couldn’t calm down unless the baby was sick,” Karp says. “I had to figure out why these things worked.”
Researchers measuring sound from within the womb recorded the kind of white noise Karp recommends. Turns out different pitches of white noise have different effects with low pitch making us fall asleep and high pitch obviously waking us up. These effects can also take place on a more subtle basis. Karp and his team created an audio CD that best works to sooth an infant.
“It’s kind of fun to look at something we’ve walked by a thousand times before and notice something new,” Karp says. “It’s hard to find something that solves a problem that everyone’s been working on. It works in a day and it works almost universally.”
The Happiest Baby on the Block has sold well over 1 million copies worldwide. Karp also created a global accreditation program, having certified 2,600 educators in 11 countries with about 1,000 more in progress, to teach the method to other parents. And it’s all headquartered out of an art deco home in Brentwood with the help of his wife and some assistants.
These days Karp travels frequently to lecture and establish new teaching centers. He had just returned from Chile at the time we spoke. Karp says his work extends far beyond just calming babies. Besides being a general nuisance, a crying baby is a major cause of abuse, post-partum depression, marital stress, breast feeding failure, obesity and car accidents, Karp said.
“It’s a really serious issue.” Karp says. “Billions of dollars are spent each year and tremendous human suffering occurs. That started to get exciting to me that some simple ideas could have an impact.”
Robert Nickell, president and CEO of Daddy Scrubs, which sells products for fathers of newborns, says he’s a total believer in Karp’s methods. Nickell should know. He’s the father of seven children. The 53-year-old says he raised four children without knowledge of the book and could really tell the difference.
“Back then I didn’t know what to do,” Nickell says. “You watch his video and see the baby go from screaming to calm. It really works. We tried it and the next day the baby was like night and day.”
Karp’s methods have drawn some controversy over the years. Several states have laws against swaddling, for instance, in a childcare setting. Karp says swaddling is never dangerous and the baby actually has less chance of turning over. Putting a baby to sleep on her back cut crib death in half but babies started to crying more. Then parents began bringing babies to sleep with them at night at greater numbers, which spiked rates of infant deaths again. Swaddling through the night, he says, is the answer.
Petran at the Pump Station says she’s hears often from parents who think they can’t swaddle correctly. The center is actually launching a swaddle clinic because intstructors hear so much from parents about the fear of swaddling incorrectly.
“It’s a technique. There are different types of swaddles,” Petran says. “People say the baby’s not taking the swaddle but that’s probably because you’re not doing it right.”
Karp also go against other common practices. He advises waking a baby up when you put her down to bed rather than being afraid to disturb her sleep.
“The idea is to get them to self soothe so that when they wake up they can put themselves back to sleep,” Karp says.
It might come as some surprise that Karp himself never fathered a newborn. He’s married and helped raise a stepdaughter from the time she was eight. Aside from night-calls he never personally experienced the trials of raising an infant. Few people, however, has worked with babies day in and day out as much as a pediatrician.
“When you take care of thousands, you learn some things about them,” Karp says.
Karp grew up in Queens, New York and came to Los Angeles in 1976 after medical school. As for his next endeavor, Karp is planning a book called Happiest Teen on the Block. WP