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December 13, 2020

New Baby? We’re Chatting with Baby Sleep Whisperer Harvey Karp, M.D.

By Laura Byrne

If you’ve had a baby or are expecting, you’ve more than likely come across the name of Dr. Harvey Karp. He’s the world-renowned pediatrician, child development expert and author of “The Happiest Baby on the Block” and the “Happiest Toddler” books.

Dr. Karp developed what’s known as the 5 S’s, techniques to help calm a crying baby. While the swaddle and shushing are mostly effective, he realized it didn’t help sleep deprived parents get through the night, which is why he developed the SNOO Smart Sleeper four years ago.

We caught up with him via ZOOM to talk about the device and why it was developed. (Interview has been edited for space constraints.)


TBPM: What inspired you to write your books and share the calming techniques with families around the world?

Dr. Karp: In my early training, I worked on a child abuse team and I saw babies who were injured and even killed by their parents. They weren’t bad people. They just red-lined; they couldn’t handle it. And then I learned—as all pediatricians are taught—babies, they wake up a lot. They cry a lot. Colic, we don’t really know what causes it, but it will go away. You just have to deal with it and get past it.

With the book, what I came to realize is, that babies are born with a reflex that we never knew about. It’s sort of a like an off-switch for crying and on-switch for sleep called the calming reflex. It really revolves around the idea of the fourth trimester.

If you understand that your baby is born 4 months too soon, then you realize why you have to hold them and rock them so much. When you understand that it is louder than a vacuum cleaner inside of you and the baby is being rocked every time you breathe and is being held tight, you understand why they need these things.

If you do the techniques the way they’re designed, usually in seconds you see an improvement.


The 5 S’s:

  • Swaddle
  • Side or Stomach (the back is the only safe position for sleeping – this S is activated by holding baby on side or stomach over your shoulder)
  • Shush
  • Swing
  • Suck

TBPM: What led to the development of the SNOO?

Dr. Karp: What do you do at night? This is the key message about SNOO. SNOO is not a baby bed. SNOO is a service. It’s not a product. It’s your older sister who moved in and said, “Go to sleep, I’m going to hold and rock the baby all night long, shush the baby all night long. If the baby gets upset, I’ll rock and shush more, and if nothing is working, I’m going to get you because the baby is hungry and needs a feeding.”

The whole thing is that we should have extended families. It takes a village. Parents today think the normal family is two parents and a child and it’s not. The normal family is to have 5 nannies expect that it’s your grandma, older sister and all the entourage. SNOO is really trying to fill that gap.

TBPM: How does the SNOO work?

Dr. Karp: What SNOO does is it rocks and shushes babies all night long, imitating their experience in the womb. It responds when the baby gets upset with a few different levels of a little more bouncy rocking and louder shushing. Fifty percent of the time, it calms within a minute—50% it doesn’t, which means the baby needs a feeding or needs you. It’s not a magic bed. We’ve studied over 10,000 babies from 0-6 months and we’ve shown that within a week or so, the baby is getting an extra hour to even two hours of sleep.

Over 80 hospitals are using the beds for all sorts of benefits for the nurses, for the families and ultimately, think insurance companies will pay for this.  (Dr. Karp donated SNOO sleepers to Tampa General Hospital, too.)

TBPM: We know the Centers for Disease Control says about 3,600 babies die every year from Sudden Unexpected Infant Death Syndrome.

It’s a serious issue. Fortunately, we know a lot about how to keep them safer. Keep them on the back; not have them in bed with you; breastfeed; have them in your room next to your bed; use a pacifier at night; get them vaccinated; don’t smoke (of course); don’t have the bulky bedding in the bed with them. Those are all tips that can significantly reduce the risk. SNOO will even more so reduce the risk because they [babies] cannot flip over on their own.

Right now, what pediatricians teach is swaddling is okay, but when a baby gets to two months or can start rolling over, you have to stop swaddling.

When you stop swaddling, they cry more, they roll over more, they are brought into bed more …  it’s kind of a tricky situation for parents. That’s where we’re hoping SNOO is going to be a solution. By improving sleep, you’re not going to bring the baby into bed with you and by keeping them on their back, they’re not going to roll over.

I’m really very hopeful that we’re right on the verge of being able to dramatically reduce infant sleep deaths.

TBPM: We know sleep is important for babies, but it’s necessary for adults too!

Dr. Karp: We joke about tired parents, but in truth it’s a really serious issue. Parents are struggling. It’s the number one complaint of parents that they’re exhausted. On average they’re getting under six hours of sleep a night, which studies show makes you equivalent to someone who is drunk.

It’s a trigger for post-partum depression, marital stress, breast feeding failure, obesity, child abuse … it’s not a trivial little problem.

As a pediatrician, teaching the 5 S’s was great and helping them [parents] during the day, but it wasn’t helping them at night. That’s when I decided to see if I could do something to make it easier. That’s how SNOO came about.

The SNOO has a responsive white noise component. Why is white noise so important?

Dr. Karp: Everyone is told, “Tip toe! The baby is sleeping!” And yet, that is the worst thing you can do with a baby. They are used to sound. They are used to motion, tight cuddling. They’re used to being rolled up in a little ball. You could sleep on a cement floor if you had to. You wouldn’t sleep well, but you would sleep eventually. If I took everything away from you, you’re going to sleep, but if I give you everything that you’re used to, you are going to sleep better and longer, and babies are the same way.

TBPM: In all of your years or research, what are your top baby registry must-haves?

Dr. Karp: Anything that would imitate the womb is something I would recommend putting on the registry. A good pacifier, a white noise machine and SNOO and a carrier and swaddle blankets. I’m not a big fan of buying tons and tons of stuff. As a culture we probably have more things than we really need, but if you understand the fourth trimester, the thing you need are the things that imitate life in the womb.


*SNOO Smart Sleeper: $1,395 to buy or $129 a month to rent (discount programs available for military). Learn more: HappiestBaby.com

*Learn more about safe sleep and other critically important safety advice by visiting preventneedlessdeaths.com.


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