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The Baby Tamer

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Mitzy Taggart showed up at Dr. Harvey Karp’s L.A. clinic as so many of his patients do—at wit’s end with a shrieking infant. Her 4-week-old son Aidan, though perfectly healthy, “had been crying for 44 straight hours,” she recalls.

On that April evening Karp, 50, did for Aidan what he has done for countless other newborns, including those of such stars as Michelle Pfeiffer and Pierce Brosnan. He took the squalling boy into his arms and wrapped him tightly in a receiving blanket while forcefully repeating “Shhhh.”

Within minutes Aidan was asleep—and his mother had calmed down too. “When you see how effective this is, you don’t forget it,” says Taggart, 35, an environmental scientist. “I just wish someone had told me about it earlier. Much earlier.”

Moms and dads across the country are about to get the message. Karp’s new book, The Happiest Baby on the Block: The New Way to Calm Crying and Help Your Baby Sleep Longer, has just arrived in stores after drawing a $1.1 million advance from Bantam—reportedly the highest ever for a first-time author in the parenting field—as part of a two-book deal. The Santa Monica-based pediatrician claims to have discovered the grail long sought by bleary-eyed parents of the estimated 25 percent of infants who cry more than three hours a day—an “automatic shut-off switch” for bawling babies.

“All of a sudden we didn’t have a baby keeping us up all night,” says actress Hunter Tylo, another of Karp’s celeb clients, who practiced his methods on her newborns Izabella and Katya. “It was an absolute miracle.” Experts tend to agree; though Karp borrowed his soothing techniques from several sources, they note, he’s the first to bring them together in such a systematic way. The Happiest Baby regimen, says Lynn Sullivan, head of parenting services at Santa Monica-UCLA Medical Center, “is one of the best things to happen in pediatrics in a long time.”

The miracle, says Karp, is based on mimicking conditions in the womb. Fetuses, he points out, are barraged with sensory input, from the whoosh of blood through the mother’s arteries to the rocking caused by her every move. “Inside the uterus,” he says, “the baby is tightly confined and hears a constant sound that’s a little louder than a vacuum cleaner.” Such stimuli, he theorizes, trigger a “calming reflex” that keeps fetuses from acting up and harming themselves or their mothers.

Newborns, however, face a distressingly different world. “We think they need quiet and stillness,” he says. “But that’s enough to drive some babies bananas.” To restore tranquility Karp prescribes what he calls “the five S’s”: swaddle the infant, place her on her side or stomach, gently swing her, provide something to suck on and make a loud “shhhh-ing” noise that, says Karp, “in a baby’s language is the most beautiful sound imaginable.” With these and other simple measures, he promises, “the fussiest babies can be made very calm, and the calmest babies can be made absolutely serene.”

Karp himself was born to Queens civil engineer Joe, 84, and his home-maker wife, Sophie, now deceased. After graduating from Bayside High School at 16, he earned a biology degree at the University of Buffalo and an M.D. in ’76 from Albert Einstein College of Medicine. There he discovered that he loved working with kids. But during his residency at Childrens Hospital Los Angeles, when parents brought in babies whose problem was nonstop crying, he says, “all we could tell them was that they’d grow out of it.” Eventually he began studying infant-calming techniques from ancient history and other cultures and applying his findings to his own patients.

So far, surprisingly, Karp’s own parenting experience has consisted of raising stepdaughter Lexi, 18, with Nina, 39, the spa owner he married four years ago. The couple are planning to have a baby soon, but in the meantime Karp is content to make the world a happier—and quieter—place for others. “My goal,” he says, “is to help our culture see things from a baby’s perspective.”

Susan Schindehette

Johnny Dodd in Los Angeles