Sleep deprivation is such a rite of passage for American parenthood that “How are you sleeping?” is the most socially acceptable way to greet the arrival of a new baby. Most parents will reply with a nervous laugh and an anecdote about something stupid they did in the throes of infant-induced insomnia. “And after I found the bottle in the closet, I finally found my phone—I had put it in the fridge!”
What they probably won’t share is the story about the time they endangered their newborn while pushed to the brink of exhaustion. For me, it was waking up on my living room couch, startled to find my 2-week-old baby barely cradled in one of my arms.
When my daughter was born, she immediately started sleeping in four-hour increments that grew longer and more predictable each day. My son, born two years later, didn’t sleep as soundly. When he woke to eat, it was harder to get him back to sleep, especially in the middle of the night. That night, he had finally dozed off after I fed him. But I was scared to transition him back to his tiny bassinet in our bedroom for fear of waking him again. While sitting there, debating my options, I had essentially blacked out.
About a month later, when I was still spending up to three hours in the middle of the night trying to feed and soothe my son back to sleep, I scrolled past one of the first reviews of the Snoo, a $1,300 bed for infants with curved walls of white mesh fabric, dark wood veneer, and hairpin legs that looked lifted from a Milan showroom floor.
I’d heard about the Snoo before. It appeared at the crest of a wave of connected baby technology that hit the market as the founders of tech companies reached child-rearing age. Silicon Valley wanted to equip anxious parents with night-vision cameras, feeding trackers, heartbeat monitors, tiny wearables that were essentially infant lo-jack devices, and cribs equipped with sensors that could detect everything from a hungry wail to a soiled diaper (I don’t want to know how they planned to quantify that last one). All of the information would then be delivered to your phone, neatly curated in an app.
The Snoo is outfitted with a motor, microphones, and Wi-Fi, and yes, there is an app. But the Snoo has something that none of the sleep-monitoring gadgets do: baby-sleep celebrity Dr. Harvey Karp, whose 2002 book The Happiest Baby on the Block spawned a multimillion-dollar empire.
“Are you doing the ‘5 S’s’?” parents asked us, pressing Karp’s companion DVD into our hands (it’s now available streaming for $8.95). It’s a tutorial for his baby-calming methodology meant to recreate the environment babies experience in the womb: swaddling, side or stomach, shushing, swinging, and sucking.
Karp intended the Snoo—short for “snooze”—as his sixth S. When the baby cries, the Snoo starts to wiggle and play a swooshing noise. (Yes, Karp’s very own white noise sounds—available as an MP3 for $7.95.) The Snoo also has a unique bonus feature: a velcroed, elastic swaddle that’s secured with straps to the bed itself, so the baby cannot roll over.
Still, I was skeptical. Doctors recommend putting infants to sleep on a flat, firm surface—with not much else. In Finland, new parents are sent home from the hospital with a cardboard box for their babies to sleep in. Why did it need to be this slick, motorized gadget?
This seemed to be a signature move by the designer of the Snoo, Yves Béhar. From a $199 cup that used sensors to provide nutritional information for liquids to a $700 juice machine that performed a task which could be done by hand, he seemed to be exclusively lending his expertise to startups that solved non-problems for the elite. I wasn’t sure if a piece of pricey baby furniture could fundamentally improve my family’s well-being—and I hated that it wasn’t accessible to the families who might really need it.
You can peruse hundreds of YouTube reviews and Instagram posts of sleep cycles tracked by the Snoo’s app, bedazzled with triumphant emojis. After raising $10 million in 2015, with additional investment from celebrities like Justin Timberlake, Jessica Biel, Scarlett Johansson, and Zoe Saldana, the Snoo’s parent company got an additional $23 million in funding last December.
But some of the Snoo’s praise, it should be noted, is from those celebrities, or from influencers who were given the beds for free. To attempt to buffer against the influencer effect, I distributed a survey* to 25 parents who had used it, from LA to London. (Most who responded were in New York City, though the company says it has customers in all 50 U.S. states.) The feedback was overwhelmingly positive. (To Béhar’s credit, about half specifically said they wanted it because of the design. “Absolutely, I love that it has an ‘Apple’ design aesthetic to it,” one parent said.)
Half of parents surveyed by Curbed said design was a factor when choosing a baby bed.
All but one of the 25 parents said it soothed their babies to sleep and kept them asleep longer. There were a few negatives: Some parents noted issues like the sensors being too sensitive to baby’s every peep and an app that wasn’t as well-designed as the cradle. Other parents said they had trouble using other cribs when traveling or experienced harder nights after moving into a full-size crib. (A “weaning” setting scales down the movement to help babies transition out of the Snoo, which Karp recommends doing around six months.) But overall, every parent surveyed, even the parent who said it didn’t work, said they would recommend it to other parents. With one caveat: the price.
Paying $1,300 for something I’d only use for a few months seemed outrageous, even if I was able to hand it down to someone else. I needed to save that money to pay someone to watch my son once I went back to work. But now I was curious. Did I miss out on the bed that would have helped my now-toddler become a better sleeper? I went to ask Karp for myself.
At Happiest Baby’s Los Angeles headquarters, while dozens of employees ate lunch in a garden fringed with banana trees and prickly pear cactuses, Karp wants to start our conversation by showing me something. He fires up a Snoo used for simulations. When the baby cries harder, the motion and sound intensify. The movement, which one of the parents I interviewed described as “too violent,” doesn’t bother me; it actually reminds me of watching my own babies nod off during bumpy stroller rides. But just when I think the baby is jostling so much it’s going to leap up like an animatronic character at Disneyland, the bed turns off. After 60 seconds, a message is dispatched to parents via the app that the baby needs human attention.
“The bed will calm babies in under a minute 50 percent of the time,” says Karp. “But the other 50 percent of the time the bed won’t do anything. What it allows you to do is get one to two hours more sleep so you’re a better mom during the day.”
I was surprised at how much Karp downplayed the innovation of the Snoo. He waves away the idea that it’s some robot caregiver or even a connected crib (you don’t have to link it to the Wi-Fi or sync an app for it to work). “Really, it’s just a very smart swing,” he tells me. “And it’s safe.”
In 2017, the most recent year that Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data is available, about 3,600 infants in the U.S. died from unexpected causes. Just 30 years ago, that number was almost double. Up until 1992, parents were told to put their newborn babies to sleep on their bellies for fear that infants might choke on their own vomit or drool. But the recommendations were changed after American Academy of Pediatrics research demonstrated that babies put to sleep on their stomachs were actually more likely to die.
Almost immediately, infant deaths plummeted. But the change in policy introduced a new problem, says Karp, who was practicing as a pediatrician at the time. Even though it was medically safer, babies don’t sleep as well on their backs. They wake up more.
The market responded with an arsenal of portable sleepers, soothers, pillows, and swings. These sleep solutions are passed along from family to family, grocery bags of plastic tubing and pastel fabrics ceremoniously deposited on new parents’ front porches.
One such product that achieved a cult-like status is the Fisher-Price Rock ’n Play. The packaging of the Rock ’n Play claims it was “designed for all-night sleep,” although it was developed with no input from medical professionals. Unlike a flat bassinet, the Rock ’n Play tilts the baby’s head up at an angle, which may help some babies sleep, but also creates a higher risk of rolling over or suffocating. It was recalled earlier this year after a Consumer Reports investigation determined the sleeper had been responsible for 32 infant deaths. A staggering 4.7 million had been sold, and it wasn’t hard to see why it was so popular—a basic model cost $40.
One-fifth of parents surveyed found out about the Snoo from Instagram.
Parents have become so desperate for sleep that they’re ignoring safety recommendations, Karp says. “They’re so tired they’re bringing babies into bed with them or putting them into swings.” (Bed-sharing is okay later on, Karp says, but never before six months.) While overall Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS) deaths have gone down, accidental deaths from strangulation or suffocation have gone up. The Snoo, Karp argues, can eliminate those deaths by extinguishing what he deems “unsafe sleeping practices.”
Karp may have already achieved this goal. Tens of thousands of babies have logged over 50 million hours in the Snoo with no reported deaths, according to data provided by Happiest Baby. Statistically speaking, some of those babies should have died. Eventually, one likely will, says Karp, matter-of-factly. Yet by creating a bed that secures a swaddled baby on her back, then telling parents they might be able to catch a few extra Z’s if they use it correctly, the Snoo may have cajoled parents away from tempting sleep hacks.
But a safe place for babies to sleep is really only a part of Karp’s mission. Tired babies might scream for what feels like days at a time, but they’ll eventually fall asleep. Tired parents are more likely to fight with each other, snap at other children, and make potentially hazardous mistakes.
Parents that I spoke to who used the Snoo agreed that getting just a little extra sleep was worth the money. Because her first child didn’t sleep more than two hours at a time, motherhood had been a traumatic experience for Sarah Boyette. “I never knew how cute it was to see a baby fall asleep because I’d never seen it,” she says. After one week with an equally inconsolable second child in a small apartment, her Snoo arrived. “At four weeks old I got four continuous hours of sleep and I said, ‘I would have paid $500 for that,’” she says. By her calculus, the Snoo paid for itself within two nights.
But it’s impossible to know if babies might have slept equally well without a thousand-dollar investment. What’s more, the cost might lead parents to convince themselves it must work, suggests my colleague Nilay Patel, editor-in-chief of The Verge. He has witnessed a similar phenomenon when people buy other high-end gadgets: “If it is expensive and looks beautiful, you are preconditioned to believe what it will do,” he tells me. “Especially if there’s design cachet and everyone is going to ask you about it.”
Patel was given a free Snoo review unit for his newborn daughter, who he says slept fine in other cribs and sleepers, less so in the Snoo. He also interviewed Karp. Patel ultimately decided that although he can confidently recommend what smartphone to buy, he couldn’t make an unequivocal recommendation for how to get babies to sleep. ”Some babies don’t sleep; it’s just a thing that happens,” he says. Wirecutter reviewer Caleb Hannan had a similar experience with his daughter, and says Karp offered advice for modifying the bed, including putting cans of tuna under two of the legs to create a slight incline. (Newer iterations of the Snoo have adjustable legs.)
One of the best testimonials I heard about the cradle’s effectiveness was from Anna De Souza, who originally had one Snoo for her twins, thinking it could help calm one baby at a time. She ended up getting a second Snoo because she could see how well one baby slept compared to the other. “The hardest part is putting two babies of the same age to sleep at the same time—it’s like a comedy sketch,” she says. “This feels like there’s a friend there who is able to help you.” Her babies slept so well, she ended up being able to go back to her job as a broadcast reporter earlier than anticipated.
The anxiety parents face is heightened by having to return to work, notes Jennifer Mayer, who works as a doula and a back-to-work coach for new parents. “For anyone who is planning to go back to work, sleep is a focus and a priority,” she says. “The Snoo could be a way to help people get more sleep before it becomes an issue.”
From the moment my children were born, each developmental milestone was bittersweet. Each bobble-headed pushup or toothless smile meant I was that much closer to the day I had to leave them and go back to work. For my son, the date was like a countdown flashing over his head. I’d tried everything I’d done with my daughter, and my son’s sleep wasn’t getting consistently better.
For me, returning to work—at jobs I loved, by the way—meant creating self-imposed deadlines for getting my kids to sleep through the night by the date my employer would no longer supplement my salary. I got 12 weeks, which put me in the minority of new parents. One out of four American mothers go back to work within two weeks. The pressures of returning before a child’s sleep schedule has stabilized, paired with child care expenses, squeeze more mothers than fathers out of the workforce.
A parent who can afford to buy a $1,300 baby bed probably has a job—or a partner—with an adequate family leave policy. Someone who has to go back to work at two weeks likely does not. The Snoo’s price was originally $1,160, but it’s now $1,295, although specials have run with prices as low as $800. Most parents I talked to who bought it secondhand paid around $500. (For comparison, the Wirecutter’s top bassinet pick is $170.)
60 percent of parents surveyed bought the Snoo new.
In an effort to make the Snoo more accessible, Happiest Baby started offering rentals this year which are now priced at $112 per month, about $3.70 per day, plus a $45 “reconditioning” fee. If you only use it for six months, that’s a far more reasonable—but still expensive—$717.
Renting was always the plan, says Karp, and it’s why the Snoo is so high-end. “When we designed the bed, we tested it to over 30 million cycles. But no one is going to use it that much, even with two kids. The goal is to get them to as many families as possible.”
Karp’s vision is to make the Snoo as universally available as a breast pump. Thanks to the Obama-era Affordable Care Act, every new mom is eligible for a free breast pump, which, along with lactation services and mandates for workplaces to provide spaces to breastfeed, has contributed to an increase in breastfeeding rates. Eventually, posits Karp, insurance companies will subsidize this bed in the same way.
In fact, some corporations, including Snap, Activision Blizzard, Dow Jones, and Qualcomm, are already getting Snoos for their employees, alongside family-friendly policies like paying for egg-freezing procedures, on-site child care, and overnighting breast milk home from business trips. But some of those companies also have incredibly generous family leave policies that allow parents to stay home longer with their babies.
The U.S. does not mandate paid parental leave, leaving the onus on states to decide if they want to offer it. Only six states, plus the District of Columbia, do. In January, California Gov. Gavin Newsom said he wanted the state to provide six months paid, up from the six weeks currently provided. It is the most progressive proposal on the table, yet still puts the U.S. behind nearly all of its economic peers.
In Finland, where newborn babies sleep in boxes, parents are offered 161 weeks of partially paid leave. The country has one of the world’s lowest infant mortality rates—1.7 deaths per 1,000 births compared to 5.8 deaths per 1,000 births in the U.S.—not because of a bed, but because of a family-centered culture where women also have free access to high-quality prenatal and reproductive health care.
It’s not just about leave or health care, though. Housing in the U.S. has become so expensive that more two-parent households have both parents working full-time. More people are delaying having children due to financial constraints, meaning that by the time they do have kids, they’re often also caring for their older parents and don’t have the option to rely on them as caregivers. If someone like me, part of a dual-income household and in a unionized workplace, is having trouble with career-family stability, how do parents with less support make it work?
Women used to have more support from their communities, Karp points out. “You think you’re supposed to do it all. The truth is, you’re supposed to have five women helping you: your mom, your grandmother, your sister, your aunt, your neighbor.” When he gave a lecture to San Francisco pediatricians five years ago, someone stood up at the end of the talk and challenged him: “You’re retired, what are you doing to protect American families?” That night, he went back to his hotel room and began sketching out what would become the Snoo.
But can a bed fix a broken system? The flashy new smart crib or less-intrusive breast pump or trendy car seat doesn’t solve our real problems: a misogynistic culture with a maternal mortality rate that’s nearly doubled since 1990, wildly inequitable employment practices, and cities that have prioritized a method of transportation that remains the leading cause of death for children.
The thing is, moms like me will keep on buying these products, but not for the well-being of our babies. Those investments are for us, so we can have a fighting chance at clawing our way back into a society engineered to eject women who choose to have children. The Snoo might buy us a few peaceful nights, but in a country where women make lower salaries than their male counterparts while still shouldering a majority of child-rearing responsibilities, no fancy bassinet is going to bridge that gap.
A piece of furniture will only get us so far.
*Curbed created a survey for Snoo users which was shared on Curbed.com and Curbed’s newsletters, through social media channels, and in various online parenting groups. A total of 25 parents responded, and the author followed up with phone interviews for more detailed information.