For new parents, Dr. Harvey Karp is something more than a household word. He's a verb.
To “Harvey Karp” means to magically calm a screaming baby using Karp's techniques, which are explained in his 2002 book and DVD, The Happiest Baby on the Block. Since the book came out, Karp has displaced Dr. Spock and T. Berry Brazelton as the nation's most widely read pediatrician.
“Moms absolutely love him,” says Cheryl Petran, who works at the Pump Station, a popular L.A. baby boutique where Karp occasionally gives classes. “People get to see firsthand how it works, and they become believers.”
Karp has a closely cropped beard and the gentle demeanor of a new-age guru. Though born and raised in Queens, he has spent his adult life in L.A. He lives in Pacific Palisades with his wife, Nina Montee Karp, a European émigré who helped to produce the DVD.
In his book's foreword, Karp writes that the seeds of his technique were planted in 1980, during his fellowship at the UCLA School of Medicine. There, he treated infants who had been abused because their parents couldn't stop them from crying.
“I became outraged that our sophisticated medical system didn't have a single, effective solution for babies with this common yet terribly disturbing problem,” he writes.
Over the next 20 years in practice in Santa Monica, Karp developed and refined a technique he calls the “Five S's.” They are swaddling, or tight wrapping; laying the baby on its side or stomach; shushing or using white noise to calm; swinging or jiggling; and sucking on pacifiers.
The technique garnered him a $1.1 million advance for a two-book deal, reportedly the highest ever for a first-time parenting author. Endorsed by a roster of Karp's celebrity clients, including Michelle Pfeiffer and Pierce Brosnan, the book quickly became a best seller.
Karp's second book, The Happiest Toddler on the Block, came out in 2004. In it, he says he can stop half of all toddler tantrums in seconds by mimicking a child's primitive language.
In 10 years, Karp hopes, “you won't be able to go through an airport, or to a church, or to a Kmart without seeing someone kneel down and do this with an upset little 2-year-old.”
His next book, due out in late 2011, will target sleep training. He expects it to lead to almost universal adoption of white-noise machines.
Karp gave up his practice five years ago to focus on extending the Happiest Baby brand. He launched a program to train thousands of Happiest Baby educators, and has made inroads at military bases.
But he still encounters resistance. Some pediatricians, including Brazelton, have grumbled about his methods, saying they need more research. After Southwest Airlines kicked a mother and her screaming toddler off a plane last year, Karp offered to train the airline's flight attendants. He got no response.
Karp has made a few appearances on national TV — most notably, when he debated vaccines with Jenny McCarthy on Larry King Live — but he has never been invited to appear on Oprah.
He is a workaholic. His wife has gotten him to take vacations on the Dalmatian Coast, near where she was born. But much of Karp's free time is spent lobbying legislators to ban chemicals harmful to children, like phthalates (substances added to plastics) and BPA (a plastic hardener), or working on side projects, like brain research and breast-cancer awareness.
Karp underwent bypass surgery three years ago, which gave him a sense of his own mortality.
“Sometimes, if you've gotta get something done, you've gotta do it yourself,” he says. “What I know is powerful enough to change culture. But if I don't assert myself to make that happen, there's a chance it won't happen. I know my days are limited.”