To this day, pediatric books say that colic is a mysterious condition. But I believe the chief cause is clear: too little rhythmic stimulation.
— Dr. Harvey Karp
Dr. Karp set his sights on becoming a doctor at a young age. “I was always socially conscious and wanting to understand how things work,” he says. Medicine seemed like a natural fit—and Einstein, with its high level of academics and what Dr. Karp calls “attention to the social environment,” was the perfect place for him to study.
While at Einstein he learned not only about the science of medicine, but also about what it takes to assume the mantle of physician and healer. “I was taught that providing healthcare was a privilege,” he says. “People who are ill are in a vulnerable position, and it’s our responsibility to treat them with respect. As students we were given opportunities to get into the community and meet with patients, to see the human face of medicine,” he adds.
Because they saw so many Spanish-speaking patients, Dr. Karp joined with other students to hire a tutor and learn the language. “We had class every week and ate lunch together to improve our Spanish-speaking skills,” he says. “That way we could talk directly to our patients without having an interpreter in the middle.”
Perhaps the most formative aspect of his medical training, he says, was “realizing the joy of discovery.” He still vividly recalls learning neuroanatomy as a first-year student from Dominick Purpura, M.D., who would later go on to serve as dean of Einstein for 22 years. Throughout the semester, Dr. Karp says, “Dr. Purpura periodically displayed a picture of a smiling boy and asked: ‘What’s wrong with Grant?’” At the end of the semester, Dr. Purpura shared Grant’s diagnosis: He had severe hydrocephalus. Fluid filled the space where his brain should be; his brain tissue was limited to a narrow band around the inside of his skull.
“And yet, Grant appeared smiling before us, looking entirely normal,” Dr. Karp says. “It is a medical mystery. How could this boy lack so much of the brain yet act almost normally? Dr. Purpura’s message was clear: We know so much yet have so much to learn.”
The idea is to make the baby more comfortable and, if you can do that, parents become more comfortable, too.
By his second year of medical school, Dr. Karp had decided to go into pediatrics. He would later do groundbreaking research on what his youngest patients were trying to communicate with their cries. “I’ve always been attracted to unsolved problems,” he says. “To this day, pediatric books say that colic is a mysterious condition. But I believe the chief cause is clear: too little rhythmic stimulation.”
Daphne Hsu, M.D., chief of the division of pediatric cardiology at Montefiore and professor of pediatrics at Einstein, agrees with Dr. Karp that colic can be treated. “Sometimes babies cry excessively because they are unable to soothe themselves as they adjust to life outside the womb,” she says. “In utero they are used to falling asleep with movement and noise around them. They respond to maneuvers that mimic that environment to help them go to sleep peacefully.”
Dr. Karp’s study of colic revealed that infants are born with a “calming reflex,” an irresistible response to stimuli that mimics the womb: swaddling that creates a snug feeling, shushing that sounds like blood flow, and gentle jiggling like what the baby experienced when Mom moved through her day. Dr. Karp’s books and videos offer techniques that parents can use to recreate that comforting environment.
“Harvey’s innovation is that it’s baby-focused,” Dr. Hsu says. “The idea is to make the baby more comfortable and, if you can do that, parents become more comfortable, too.”
Ultimately, Dr. Karp says he thinks that the SNOO robotic bassinet will do more than just give harried parents a break. He says that studies now underway and others set to start soon will explore potential SNOO benefits, including preventing SIDS and postpartum depression and improving care for premature infants.
But even without that evidence, improving sleep has clear benefits—and not just for babies. “When babies sleep better, parents sleep better,” Dr. Tomaselli says. “That’s so important for mental and physical health.”
Impressed by Dr. Karp’s lifetime of work, Einstein’s Board of Governors honored him as a finalist for Einstein’s Distinguished Alumnus award this year. “It’s a prestigious award, given our history of graduates who have gone on to have a profound impact in the medical sciences,” Dr. Tomaselli says. “Dr. Karp continues in that tradition by applying advancements in science to improving people’s lives.”