Interview with Dr. Harvey Karp, author, The Happiest Toddler on the Block – by Melissa Couch Salim

Dr. Harvey Karp is one of America’s most-trusted pediatricians and child development experts. He is also the founder and CEO of Happiest Baby, a smart-tech company, creator of SNOO and other parenting solutions.  Dr. Karp practiced pediatrics in Los Angeles for over 25 years. He is on the faculty of the USC School of Medicine and a fellow of the American Academy of Pediatrics. His landmark discoveries and unique ability to translate complex science into effective techniques to empower parents have revolutionized our understanding of the needs of young children. Dr. Karp has devoted his life to helping families raise healthy and happy children.


I believe that all parents of toddlers would love nothing more than to eliminate their child’s tantrums all together. How did you discover this technique? As a young pediatrician, I tried all of the conventional wisdom for calming upset toddlers who came to me for an examination, from calm patient reassurance to distracting toys, to having them their moms restrain them with their arms, as I tried figure out if their ear drum was red from infection or crying.

As you might imagine, I soon learned that most frightened children are not swayed by calm reassurances. I may as well be speaking Swahili to them! Then, I had an epiphany: Toddlers don’t think like older kids, so why was I trying to speak to them like older kids?

I know this will sound odd, but I soon found that the best way for doctors— and parents—to think about these adorable young children was as little friends who are relatively uncivilized. In other words, roommates who are part toddler and part happy-go-lucky Neanderthals.

The reason I think this POV is so helpful is that it immediately changes a parent’s expectations of themselves and of their little friend. Suddenly, it makes sense why they’re not great at saying please and thank you and why it will take years for them to be consistent with sharing toys, taming their tantrums, taking turns and speaking with an “indoor voice.”

Another way to think about it is to consider how the toddler brain develops. When little kids get angry or frustrated, the part of their brain that controls language, logic, and patience—the left pre-cortex or “executive brain”— dials way down. I mean, tots aren’t great with those skills, even on a good day! But, when upset, young toddlers often “go ape!” They forget the simple rules of being polite and begin to spit scratch, and scream. And, in this way, they’re actions are like what you’d expect from a little stone age kid.

I began testing my theory by talking to my crabby little patients in their own more primitive language and soon discovered that I could often quiet their outbursts…in under a minute! I then started writing about this more basic way of speaking to little tykes as Toddler-ese (the basic language you use to acknowledging a child’s upsets) and the Fast-Food Rule (the most effective way to acknowledge a child’s feelings.

What’s the Fast-Food Rule? Well, the simple rule that normally guides our conversations is “turn-taking.” In other words, when we chat with a friend, we go back and forth, taking roughly even turns. But when one of is upset, the rule suddenly changes. Now, whoever is most upset (hungriest for attention) gets to talk first and gets an extra-long turn. (Kind of like at a fast-food restaurant, the waiter always repeats your order, making sure they understand what you are saying before they get to their agenda, telling you how much you owe.)

The second technique, Toddler-ese, is your toddler’s native—slightly more basic/primitive— form of language. There are just three simple steps that will allow you to translate anything you want to say into phrases your child’s immature left brain can easily understand:

    • Speak in short two- to four-word phrases.
    • Use lots of repetition (you may need to repeat the same thing four to eight time in a row to give your tyke’s upset brain a chance to calm down and hear your message).
    • Mirror about one-third of your child’s emotion in your tone of voice and face/body gestures. You can read more about these techniques in The Happiest Toddler on the Block.

What is going on in a toddler’s brain that makes them behave so irrationally? My nanny often tells me it’s like dealing with a really drunk person. Any correlation? Your toddler’s brain is a buzzing hub of activity with 20 billion cells and 100 percent more nerve connections (synapses) than adults have! To help manage this flurry of activity, our brains are split into two halves that look the same but have different jobs. The left half is the nerd of the nervous system. It’s detail-oriented, calm, patient, logical and listens carefully. The quirky child-like right half is more emotional, impulsive, loves bouncing to the music, recognizes faces and places and is a master at reading if you are happy or sad or scared…the emotion in your face and voice.

In adults, these two halves stay in balance, but the left side runs the show a little bit more. In toddlers, the right half has the reins! Your tot’s right side tends to be so busy and so loud, it often ignores the low-key left side telling it to simmer down. And then, when your toddler gets upset, the rowdy right side totally drowns out the logical left side, leading to those big irrational reactions.

You believe in talking like them when trying to validate their wants which at times can be very loud and repetitive. This is fine for home, but how do you exercise this technique in public? For the most part, when you speak with your toddler you will use a pretty normal voice. (Actually, it is usually a bit more sing-song-y than the way we speak with older kids and adults.) But, many parents do say it feels odd speaking in Toddler-ese when their child is upset. They say it feels like acting or baby talk. But, what is really interesting is that all parents automatically speak Toddler-ese to their kids…when their kids are very happy! (“Mmmmm, yummy, yummy! That’s yummy, yummy soup! Tastes good, huh?”)

So, if you feel a teensy bit embarrassed or unnatural using Toddler-ese, just practice it when your child is a little happy or a little unhappy. By the way, as you practice, keep in mind you don’t want to go overboard. Remember: You’re only mirroring about one-third of your toddler’s intensity. Exaggerated displays may stop a child’s tantrum, but they work through distraction and mockery, which is not the goal. Toddler-ese is meant to calm kids through understanding and respect.

The more you practice Toddler-ese, the better you’ll get! However, all of my techniques are just suggestions—nobody’s going to be able to do them 100% of the time. But even if you’re practicing them 50% of the time, you’re doing an amazing job!

Why does a toddler go from happy even ecstatic to outright evil and dangerous in two seconds flat? Toddlers’ brains are little works-in-progress, which can make them susceptible to outbursts (as discussed above). Plus, there a lot of aspects of normal, healthy toddler development that make them have trouble following all our rules. For example, toddlers are naturally more rigid and have trouble switching gears, which is why a change of plans can make them fly off the handle. And, while it’s a parent’s job to set and enforce limits, it’s a toddler’s job to push the limits! They’re busy learning all about our world, so they can’t help themselves from exploring, climbing, running, touching, pushing, pulling…and testing all the boundaries grownups set for them. Remember, as hard as it is to raise a toddler, it’s really hard to be a toddler! They’re smaller, weaker, and slower than us…they feel like they’re losing all day long!

How long does “toddlerhood” last? When can we expect tantrums to go away, and does your technique shorten this “toddler tantrum” window of time? Toddlerhood lasts from about 8 months until 5 years. While some 4- or 5-year-olds (and teens) have occasional meltdowns, as kids get older and more verbal, their tantrums occur less and less. Communicating with respect (using the Fast-Food Rule and Toddler-ese) doesn’t just work in the moment, but it does build a healthy relationship that boosts cooperation over time, as well.

The few times my nanny has put my daughter to bed, she goes down smoothly and predictably. For me, that’s a rarity. She always goes down one hour later and wants to be held and soothed. She is okay when I put her down, but she is not getting enough sleep. Your thoughts? Kids often act differently with different parents, grandparents, etc. In part she is acting this way because she loves you so much!! She doesn’t want you to leave. Nevertheless, there is one way I like to use with toddlers that can quickly help improve the bedtime routine: Twinkle Interruptus.

For a week, use white noise from 7PM to morning, dim the lights a hour before bedtime, and offer your child a teddy bear or carry around a blankie, and practice Patience-Stretching 4-5 times a day (another Happiest Toddler technique).

Then after you have cuddled up and read a couple of stories or sung some lullabies, suddenly say “Wait! Wait! Just one second!  I need to check daddy! I’ll be right back!”). Leave the room for a few seconds and come back. Come back and praise your daughter for waiting. Then after a bit, leave again (“Mommy has to go to the bathroom really, really fast!”). You’ll repeat this, gradually increasing the waiting intervals.

A solid bedtime routine can also go a long way to help signal to your child that it’s time for bed. Dim the lights 30 minutes before bedtime and put on white noise, then try some “bedtime sweet talk.” Bedtime sweet talk is another lovely Happiest Toddler routine to help you lavish loving attention on your child at the end of the day that can make you both feel connected. What it entails is using the moments before she dozes off to talk about all the nice fun things you did that day, and all the wonderful things you’re looking forward to doing tomorrow.

I have heard parents of older children compare teenagers to toddlers.  I have also read in a variety of books that techniques used on a toddler can benefit a problematic teen. Perhaps, not the caveman technique, but I would love hear your thoughts or theories. Believe it or not, the principles behind Toddler-ese and the Fast-Food Rule are good communication skills to use with people of all ages! Now, I do not recommend talking to a teenager like a toddler (unless you really want to get a big eyeroll out of your teen!), but at the heart of Toddler-ese and the Fast-Food Rule is the concept that all feelings are legitimate and need to be respectfully acknowledged. When someone’s upset, our instinct might be to reason with that person or jump to solve the problem. But by taking a step back, and simply repeating what we’re hearing before swooping in with our own thoughts (aka use the Fast-Food Rule), we help validate those feelings.

Likewise, while you won’t speak to your teen in a toddler voice, it will help to approach your teenager in language that resonates with them. The way you speak to someone who is upset is more important and comforting than what you say. For example, if your teen is really ticked-off, it’s probably not going to make her feel better if you respond in an overly perky or flat tone. It might feel cold, uncaring…or even condescending! Instead, you want to try to mirror a bit of your child’s tone, expressions, or gestures.

Do you plan on writing a book on Teenagers and Behavioral techniques? At Happiest Baby we’re always looking for ways to make life easier for parents!

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