October 7, 2022


  • Pediatrician Harvey Karp wrote “The Happiest Baby on the Block” and invented the Snoo.
  • It was motivated by an anthropological mystery: Why do babies cry so much?
  • Karp believes we’ve made great progress on sleep, but we still have more work to do.

When Harvey Karp was in medical school, he thought he wanted to be a cardiologist. But he couldn’t give up working with his younger patients.

“I realized it’s so wonderful to work with kids and young families. They’re so positive,” Karp said.

For millions of families, Karp’s career decision was a good move. Although he never raised an infant—his stepdaughter was 7 when she came into his life—Karp became the “Godfather of Sleep” for American parents. If you’re familiar with the five S’s—squeeze, stomach side position, fatigue, swing, and suck—and the term “fourth trimester,” you have Karp to thank.

Twenty years after he shared his work with the world in “The happiest baby on the blockKarp, 70, said helping infants and their parents sleep better could prevent issues such as marital strife and accidents caused by exhaustion.

“Helping people learn these things can save billions in health care costs and employer productivity costs associated with tired parents and crying babies,” Karp said.

An anthropological mystery

Early in his career, Karp became fascinated with why babies cry so much. Colics affect one in four American babies. That didn’t make sense to Karp, especially when he learned that in some African tribes, babies cry for a few minutes each day, not hours.

There was something else on his mind: “Most adults and adult doctors have recognized that most of us fall asleep on trains, planes, cars, hammocks and to the sounds of the ocean,” he said.

Cultures around the world use a “shhh” sound to silence people. People who meditate use low, vibrating sounds and swaying, fluid movements. But no one had ever explained why these were such universal experiences. Karl felt that mimicking the womb – with low sounds and movement – explained a bit about human sleep and how to help babies get more of it. The five S’s were born.

Bringing knowledge back to the community

The five S’s aren’t new, Karp said. In previous generations with larger families and more intergenerational living, people simply passed this knowledge on. In fact, he even warned his publisher: Sell a lot of books now because soon people won’t need them.

“Once we get it back into the community, they’ll find out about it from their friends,” he said.

He was right and wrong about that. Last year, Merriam-Webster added “fourth trimester” to the dictionary, but “The Happiest Baby on the Block” is still a bestseller.

The power of the five S’s is not only that they put babies to sleep but also that they make parents feel more confident and capable. According to Karp, movie star Ashton Kutcher once told him, “now I like it when a baby cries, because I can be the magician.”

A modern twist on the 5 S’s

In 2016, Karp introduced the Snoo Smart Sleeper. The bassinet mimics the five S’s. It helps soothe infants and give parents an extra hour of sleep each night, Karp said. It’s billed as an expensive must-have for babies, but for Karp, the Snoo is a safety device.

“It helps parents prevent the tragedy and anguish that happens when you don’t use this thing,” he said.

The percentages of sudden unexpected infant death has been about the same since 2000. Data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention showed that in 2020, 27 percent of cases were caused by accidental suffocation and strangulation in bed — which Karp said is more common when parents are tired and babies are restless. Karp is conducting studies on how Snoo can reduce sudden infant death syndrome and postpartum depression and improve brain development.

“Rhythmic stimuli are as important to young babies as calories are to growth and physical development,” she said.

Employers including Under Armour, JPMorgan and the National Air Traffic Controllers Association now offer Snoo rentals as an employee perk. Karp hopes that with more research, insurance companies and state governments will continue to make Snoo more affordable.

Karp has not forgotten childhood

Even if your child doesn’t sleep through the fourth trimester, you’ll be fine, Karp said. But a bigger challenge looms: the toddler years.

“Between 8 months and 6 years, you have created a human being,” he said. Sleep, relief and communication become even more important. And Karp doesn’t think the trendy idea of ​​talking kids through their feelings works.

“If you are angry with me, words are meaningless,” he said.

Instead of naming what children are feeling, Karp said parents should use short phrases and repetition to reflect one-third of their child’s feelings.

“You can’t get them out of their emotional jungle,” he said. “You have to go in there and lead them out.”



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