The Baby Whisperer, Dr. Harvey Karp, Answers All Our Burning Sleep Questions
The godfather of sleep has spoken.
Let’s talk about sleep, baby. Because as a mom of a toddler, the only thing on my mind at all times is sleep. I start a mental countdown to bedtime as soon as my morning alarm goes off, daydream about my last really good night of sleep as I make a third cup of coffee, and can spot a sleep regression a mile away. Basically, I’m Gollum and a good night’s sleep is my precious.
When I’m around other moms, we swap baby or toddler sleep stories and hacks with a shared look of mutual respect and admiration. As if to display our hard-earned stripes and acknowledge, “you’ve also seen the dark side and survived.” That’s because the pure exhaustion and sleep deprivation of new — and even not so new — parenthood is all about getting by with your wits about you and fishing for sleep advice from anyone who will share.
Which is why I was so excited to speak with Dr. Harvey Karp, pediatrician and renowned author of The Happiest Baby On The Block. After nearly three decades in the field, Karp is best known as the baby whisperer, the godfather of sleep with his 5 Ss technique (swaddling, side or stomach position, shhhh, swinging, and sucking), and the co-creator of the SNOO, a smart bassinet that promises new parents more sleep than ever before.
While different babies react differently to the SNOO, my experience was a positive one — my then-newborn was sleeping seven hours straight each night by the time she was nine weeks old. But newborns get older and their sleep issues get more complicated, leaving parents like yours truly with more questions than answers.
Thankfully, Karp patiently answered all my burning queries and breezed through a rapid round of baby and toddler sleep questions from moms like you.
Scary Mommy: I’ve been dying to ask this question since I was on maternity leave — when are you going to make a SNOO for adults so parents can also get some sleep?
Dr. Harvey Karp: [Laughs] Listen, I would like it for myself, too. We hope someday to do that, but you have to stay focused. We’re really first off trying to help families and babies.
SM: I love that you’ve spoken out against the idea that holding and rocking babies too much will spoil them, especially in the early days. Can you explain where that notion even came from and what that means?
HK: There’s a lot of folklore that became very, very popular in the early part of the 20th century that you shouldn’t “mollycoddle” your baby. You shouldn’t always respond to them because they learn by our responses to basically get anything they want just by crying.
And so, people overgeneralized that concept, and they said, oh, well, new babies, you want to teach them right away to be independent. And actually, independence is not that important for a baby. What is important is security and trust. So, the first goal is to teach security and trust, and then by five or six months you start teaching independence and discipline
SM: And that actually coincides with the time when babies are old enough to sleep train.
HK: That’s correct.
SM: You’ve mentioned before that the first few months when parents are so sleep-deprived they’re basically drunk parenting. I remember that time feeling like torture. Do you have any tips for new parents?
HK: Well, it literally is torture. And that torture is not a sitcom joke of brushing your teeth accidentally with the sunscreen or pouring your coffee into the cereal. It is literally torture for people, and it’s a primary driver of marital stress, postpartum depression, anxiety, obesity, car accidents, and ultimately infant deaths from being so tired that you do dangerous [things] with your baby, like bringing them into bed or falling asleep on a sofa or something like that.
SM: In your experience, what are the most common mistakes new parents or second-time new parents make when it comes to babies and sleep?
HK: Number one is falling asleep with your baby in an unsafe location. Well, falling asleep with your baby, period. Studies show that 25 to 35 percent of women have fallen asleep [with their babies] accidentally in the last couple of weeks. So, it happens pretty often. And for many parents, as you know, they do it intentionally. They intentionally bed-share, and they think that they’ll do it safely. And that’s the biggest mistake I would say, because these moms would never bed-share if they were drunk. But they’re so tired, they’re the equivalent of drunk. So, in essence, they’re bed-sharing drunk. That’s probably the biggest mistake.
The second mistake is the idea that everyone should tiptoe and be quiet when in fact babies do better with white noise, strong white noise in the background. The third mistake is to put the baby in the bed asleep. People say never wake a sleeping baby, but you really should always wake a sleeping baby when you put them down because that gives them a little opportunity to learn how to put themselves to sleep so they can start learning self-soothing. Otherwise, they only know how to fall asleep in your arms. Those are I would say a big three.
SM: What would you say are the biggest differences between sleep training a baby and sleep training a toddler?
HK: Infants are very predictable [because] babies are more similar than toddlers. Toddlers have many more differences in their personality and temperament. Babies have little differences, but pretty much if you do sleep training the right way, you’ll get through three or four nights and the baby will be sleeping better. With toddlers, it is much more of a kind of a war of wills.
For toddlers, there’s a better way of sleep training…called “Twinkle Interruptus”, which [teaches] children to be more patient and is a little bit sneaky. You go in the room with them, and then you go out, and then you come back, and then you go out, and you come back. And over the course of a couple of days, you end up going out for a minute or two or three, and they fall asleep while they’re waiting for you. And that usually solves the problem without any crying or struggle.
SM: I have rapid-fire questions I’d like to ask you culled from fellow moms of babies and toddlers. First from a mom with a 21-month-old experiencing a sleep regression who wants the parents to lay in bed with her in order to fall asleep. What can they do to nip this in the bud now while gently sleep training?
HK: Twinkle Interruptus is really the technique they should be using. [They should also use] white noise starting an hour before bedtime, they should be using a lovey, teddy bear, blankie, or some security object. And they should teach the child patience stretching, which is a technique that’s taught in The Happiest Toddler On The Block book. And then they can use this Twinkle Interruptus technique. Usually within three or four nights, the problem is solved.
SM: The following was a question I got from at least four different moms: How can you sleep train a baby in the same room as a toddler?
HK: You can’t.
HK: It’s just really hard. You really have to separate them. You let the toddler kind of camp out in your bedroom, and you have white noise in your room so your toddler doesn’t hear the baby crying. You make a special little tent, fort, have special sheets, or something fun for the toddler for a couple of days. Then you do your three or four nights of training the infant, and then you move [the toddler] back.
SM: How much damage do you really do if the baby gets used to napping in a car or a stroller?
HK: Having a child who will sleep in the car or other places, that’s great and you’re not locked down in your home. But you don’t want a situation where the child will only sleep in the car. And so you have to use your white noise machine and help them learn to sleep at home as well in their crib.
SM: So, find a way to do both.
SM: What can parents do to get their baby back on track if they’ve had their routine altered? For example, if the baby spent a weekend at the grandparents and now they’re back home. Do you sleep train them again?
HK: Sleep training turns out to happen several times: when they’re teething, when they get sick, when you travel, daylight savings. All sorts of things mess up sleep, and sleep is never finished. Kids really go up and down and up and down. So, if you’re coming from Grandma’s and your child’s not sleeping well, yeah, you have to do sleep training again.
This interview has been edited for style and length.
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