If you or someone you know has had a child since 2002, it’s likely you’ve given or been given The Happiest Baby on the Block by Dr. Harvey Karp. You’ve almost definitely heard of the 5 S’s. Some parents with babies born after 2016 may have been lucky enough to obtain a SNOO sleeper to soothe fussy newborns. Dr. Karp has built an empire around helping babies sleep. But he by no means built that empire alone.
The business of baby sleep is, in fact, a family affair. What’s not often discussed when Dr. Karp’s work is heralded around the world is that his wife Nina, and daughter Lexi, actually played pivotal roles in growing the business to where it is today. Dr. Karp was eager to brag about the impact his female family members have had on his work – and his life.
Amy Shoenthal: Dr. Karp, let’s start with you – tell me how you got started on this journey.
Harvey Karp: I was in pediatrics for many years and I learned about a group in Africa who could calm their babies in minutes while we in the US were dealing with colic babies who would cry for hours. So I wrote this book, and then Nina and I made a video and put it online, which quickly turned into us lecturing about infant sleep around the world.
We were originally hopeful that we’d see less exhaustion from parents because of this, but unfortunately that wasn’t the case. Nina and I felt like we weren’t doing enough to help prevent infant deaths due to parental exhaustion and frustration. So that’s what started the whole journey of SNOO. Lexi is actually the one who came up with the name.
Culture thrived for thousands of years because of the extended family. The extended family is there for a reason, and that’s what parents are struggling with now because we all move to our own small spaces. We wanted SNOO to be like that older sister who moves in with you.
Shoenthal: Nina, what is your background? How did you come to partner with your husband in building The Happiest Baby?
Nina Montée Karp: I directed documentaries, so when Harvey wrote this book I knew parents needed a visual to show them how he swaddled the baby and how he approached all of this. Parents would call us 3:00 in the morning and we would go to their houses to help. So I knew if we could get this film out into the world it would really help parents on a much larger scale.
Lexi Montée: Wait, I also want to point out that in 2006, this movie was sandwiched between the top movies of that year – Harry Potter and The Departed.
Nina: After my brother’s wife passed away from breast cancer, I made a film about those recovering from the disease. I would edit during the day and Harvey would edit all night long. He was the most amazing volunteer and we made this incredible documentary that really helped people. We gave people hope by showing that those who were diagnosed could still live vibrant lives. And after that process Harvey said, I think we could reduce SIDS if we did something like this for parents. So we did.
Harvey: Nina comes from a family of entrepreneurs, you know how some people have that social wisdom and business sense. So in terms of building our business, well, there would be no business without Nina. She found all the factories we partner with, she hired our executive team…
Lexi: She gave birth to our executive team!
Nina: We trust each other, we are each other’s sounding board. The pandemic didn’t change anything for us, we’ve always been coworkers building a business together 7 days a week. Harvey is kind and supportive to us, he’s always lifting us up.
Shoenthal: Do you feel like your work helped a generation of parents?
Nina: We are a family of volunteers – we are always in service. Harvey and I met at a cystic fibrosis fundraiser in Hollywood. We’re very mission driven. We’re helping parents raise healthy and happy children. The number one problem for parents is exhaustion. And eliminating a bit of that is so incredibly rewarding.
Harvey: My job is half pediatrician and half grandmother. This generation is the smartest and most educated generation in history but the most deprived of extended family support. With SNOO we’re trying to give parents the assistance they need in order to do a better job.
Lexi: You’re being too humble, you are literally changing culture! You’re saving lives, but the cultural impact you’re having is insane. My friend sent me a podcast of Ashton Kutcher and Dax Shepard nerding out over the 5 C’s. Society is telling women to be the best they can be and that they can have it all – it’s impossible but honestly you’re making it just a little easier for women to achieve more.
Harvey: We’re now in 75 hospitals. Each SNOO saves a nurse 3-5 hours a day with their workload. We’re using it as a way to help premature babies, babies withdrawing from opioids and more. It’s like an assistant nurse in the room to help get the baby to sleep. This is especially important during Covid-19 when you can’t have extended family members in the room with you and nurses have even less time for patients.
The rental model that we have comes to about $4 a day, which is a Starbucks coffee, really. You can have an extra hour of sleep and a happier baby, for the cost of a coffee. But we do hope to have third party payers and government subsidies to cover this. We’re also working with insurance companies. We just spoke with NOLA Children’s Hospital to provide these as a way to support the nurses.
Employers discover that giving the SNOO to employees shows an immediate return on investment, they see an incredible amount of loyalty when they give them to employees. Snapchat gives them to new moms for the first six months of the babies’ lives.
Lexi: 34% of moms who planned on going back to work after maternity leave don’t go back. So if we’re able to support those people we help retain employees that companies have already invested in for so long. Postpartum depression is an epidemic, what about all the postpartum anxiety and what about the culture behind that, the chain of people you’re affecting? To remove that would be remarkably impactful.
Harvey: We just did one of the largest baby sleep studies ever conducted, of 10,000 babies. From that study, we found that SNOO gets babies an extra 1-2 hours of sleep a night, which we never thought was possible. We even see higher rates of breastfeeding in mothers who use it, likely because they’re less stressed and more well rested. Our goal is to prevent 90% of infant deaths, to prevent postpartum depression. Right now there’s not much being done in terms of preventing postpartum depression.
Shoenthal: Tell me how your marketing caters to parents – is it mostly to moms? How has it evolved over the years?
Lexi: What’s been really fascinating is what we’ve seen in our own analytics, which is that it’s not just moms doing the shopping. The dudes love this. It’s like a party trick, they brag to their friends about it. We have a few testimonials where we hear dads say they cried out of joy the first night the baby slept, yes they were delirious and tired but they cried. It’s not the madmen days of the 1960s where you market certain things to men and certain things to women. We have foster families, LGBTQ+ families, babies who were previously addicted to opioids, adoptive families, you’re marketing to the whole world now, not just moms.
Shoenthal: Nina, did your personal transition to motherhood change the way you think about work? Did you experience sexism at any point in your career?
Nina: I was a single mom for years. I was constantly feeling guilty. But remembering that feeling helped me become an executive in our company because I’m able to really understand what parents are going through.
I was raised by a very strong woman who fought the Nazis. I was taught at a very young age that women could do anything men could do.
But sadly, yes. I experienced many challenges being a female cofounder. Things are getting better, but there are still many challenges. I’m a woman, I have an accent, and I built a company with my husband. I get such judgement about my role, especially in the tech world when people see me, they say oh you’re the wife. But we are partners.
I was always made to feel by some investors that my opinion was not equally valued. Sexism in Silicon Valley is rampant and my presence has probably cost us lots of money. No one wants to invest in a husband and wife team.
But this pitch process was a strong reminder that this product provides an incredible service to parents during the most challenging times. And while these VCs might judge you, they understand a great product when they see them. But some of them couldn’t see past my accent, my womanhood.
Lexi: But I’ve watched you flip them. She comes in and they think she’s just the wife and then she flips them after just a few minutes and I’m like YES!
Men are often taken at face value. But women are seen as more human. If she has the title co founder and wife, they look at her personal title more than her professional title. It even happens to me, not on that scale, but being their child and working for their company, well, assumptions are made.
Also, you can’t be a startup founder and work 18 hours a day and have a partner who doesn’t understand that. Watching them build this together has taught me so much personally and professionally. My mom has always been about the product, the company, but she gets no credit.
Nina: We’ve come a long way in this generation, but in many ways we haven’t. When someone asks me about Lexi’s background, I immediately say she got a degree in neuroscience to combat any assumptions of nepotism. The bottom line is the passion, the hard work and the results.
Lexi: Being a mom prepares you for being an executive. Multitasking, wearing a million hats, decision making, collaborating.
Shoenthal: Since you’re being so generous with your time, I decided to crowdsource some questions from my parenting networks about babies and sleep. Number one – why did all the babies stop sleeping properly when the pandemic hit?
Harvey: Probably because they’re so excited to see their parents more. Everyone’s routine is off, everyone is having to recalculate what day of the week it is. If you’ve changed your routine, your baby will recognize that.
Shoenthal: Have you seen a change in the questions or issues people are having during the pandemic as it relates to baby and toddler sleep?
Harvey: That’s really the big thing that’s come up – when you have your second child you realize toddlers are so much harder. There’s so much written about homeschooling and there’s a lot of help for babies, but Amy, you are in the group struggling the most as the parent of a toddler. Your group is asking, how do I take care of these little ones in the house at the age where they need the most? Between the ages of 1-5 is when they need the most. Especially if you only have one child, you’re the teacher, the cook, the playmate, the distraction. Especially if you have a small apartment and no outdoor space with your child.
In Happiest Baby, the key metaphor is that babies are born too soon. The biggest thing in Happiest Toddler is that toddlers aren’t children, they’re neanderthals. They’re cavemen. You have to teach them to be children and say please and thank you, but then in the meantime, remember that neanderthals don’t make great roommates.
Lexi: Parents ask a lot more about screen time, socialization, vaccines. They also ask a lot about ice cream and eating habits. Basically everyone is just scared they’re doing it wrong.
Shoenthal: Cry it out – yes or no?
Harvey: It’s good to have ideology, but if that ideology isn’t working, throw it out the window. If you’re getting sick and arguing with your partner or it’s affecting work, you have to do what you have to do. Sleep training is one of the arrows in your quiver, you decide if you use it. There are even different ways of crying it out. Should you close the door? Should you go back in? If you do it incorrectly it can make the problem worse. If you do it right it should take 3-4 nights.
Shoenthal: Tips for not totally ruining a baby or toddler’s sleep routine while traveling?
Harvey: Routine is the key word there. We’re all creatures of habit when we go to sleep. Your sheets, your own sound, you want to make it as consistent as possible. Children pay great attention to smells. When you travel bring something with a familiar scent. You can also tape some drawings they’ve done next to the bed which will make them feel more awesome.
Shoenthal: Anything else you’d like to share before we go?
Harvey: You can’t build a company without a team. Everyone knows my name and associates me with this company but I mean, Lexi was coming with me to medical conferences while she was in college and Nina was editing all my books and making the videos and has been involved with every aspect of my work. Ultimately the great pleasure is that this is a mission driven company, of course we need to make a profit for investors but we need to do this work. It keeps us awake at night but it’s something we cannot fail at. We don’t have the luxury of failing because if we fail children are going to die. We take it with great pride and great commitment and each one of us is critical in the work.