When I asked my husband, John, for his first reaction to the word “Snoo,” his shoulders tensed up. It’s a word that defined a particularly vulnerable period for us: the first few months of our son Sam’s life. For the uninitiated, the Snoo is a $1,700 mechanized bassinet that claims to automatically respond to your baby’s fussing with white noise and rocking, movement triggered by your child’s cries. The company that makes the Snoo, Happiest Baby, calls it a “smart sleeper,” and it also funnels data into an app for you to obsess over, if that’s your thing. Essentially, it promises to help your baby sleep safely, and for longer—an enticing offer when you’re running on two hours of sleep and you have no idea what to do with the tiny person you’re supposed to keep safe. We rented our Snoo, which at the time ran us $128 a month for four months. (These days, the price is up to $159.)
The Snoo didn’t need instructions from us because in theory it was listening to Sam—but John often slept with one eye open to see how well it was working. I think it helped Sam sleep longer, but honestly, it’s hard to quantify. Mostly it gave us, especially John, a kind of reassurance through data and technology and a system to follow. Still, is that peace of mind worth the price? How much does the Snoo actually do?
On Sunday’s episode of What Next: TBD, I spoke with Kate Taylor, senior features correspondent for Business Insider, about how the makers of the Snoo sold comfort to new parents, and whether the product lives up to its promises. Our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
The story of the Snoo begins with Harvey Karp: the Tom Brady of pediatricians. His 2002 book, The Happiest Baby on the Block, was a runaway bestseller. He became famous for his “five S’s”; techniques intended to help kids sleep: swaddling, shushing, swinging, side-lying, and sucking, as in sucking on a pacifier. When did Karp start to think about combining the five S’s into a product?
According to Harvey Karp, inspiration struck after he was giving a lecture on SIDS [sudden infant death syndrome]. He basically came up with this idea to combine the five S’s with what we think prevents SIDS, which is keeping babies on their back. But, a lot of times babies on their back can’t sleep well. They get really fussy; they hate it. So, this product keeps the baby on their back, but it also kind of swaddles them, shushes them, swings them, uses these five S’s to keep them on their back and actually make them fall asleep.
Once a baby is tightly swaddled on their back, the Snoo responds to their cries by playing white noise or increasing a rocking motion. The bassinet itself is made of wood and white mesh. It stands on hairpin legs and it wouldn’t look out of place in a modernist furniture store.
It’s like if someone thought, “OK, we’re going to create this trendy couch that everyone’s going to buy from Instagram, but we want to feel super high-tech.” Something I found while researching this is that it’s been displayed in several museums since it was created.
The Snoo is marketed a couple of different ways. One is as something that can help you prevent SIDS. Another is as a luxury product, used by celebrities. Do you find it interesting that there are these two very oppositional forces behind its marketing?
The marketing has this built-in weirdness. They’ve always said the Snoo was created because they wanted to prevent SIDS and create this life-saving device—but it costs $1,700 if you aren’t doing the rental program. And what we know about SIDS is that it disproportionately impacts people who are not super well-off, people who do not have the money to spend that much on a new baby product.
So it’s a weird balancing act that they’ve tried to pull off where they have to say, “This is lifesaving, everyone should have it, insurance maybe should cover it someday.” But on the other hand, they are like, “This is the biggest luxury in the world. Celebrities love it.”
A big thing at the company is a lot of name-dropping. You have celebrity investors, you have celebrities who have used the Snoo. I found from employees that they basically had this thing where they would track celebrities who were pregnant and then find a way to get them free Snoos, where they just have employees drop them off at the house. It makes sense to want celebrities to do this marketing for you, but when you’re saying that this is a device that should help all children, and probably is most useful for vulnerable children, it’s a hard balance to strike.
The marketing materials are definitely focused on preventing SIDS and on the idea that a Snoo means more sleep—both for the infant and for the parents. What does the evidence show?
The evidence is definitely not as conclusive as some of the marketing materials would lead you to believe. Happiest Baby has its own study, which has not been fully peer reviewed as a paper, that indicates it adds an hour or two of sleep at night. So what Happiest Baby is finding itself indicates that this can make a baby sleep more. However, we don’t have a ton of independent peer-reviewed studies on this. There’s one that looks at sleep and says that the Snoo decreases fussiness but doesn’t have a definitive outcome on if it makes baby sleep more.
Is there any evidence that it prevents SIDS?
Happiest Baby’s own research on this says that it prevents behaviors that contribute to SIDS or other sleep-related deaths. So, parents say, “Oh, if I have the Snoo, I’m less likely to co-sleep,” which is related to infant sleep-related deaths. But that’s kind of the same with any bassinet. If you have to spend a bunch of money on a bassinet, you’re less likely to have the baby in bed with you. Or they say, “Oh, the baby’s more likely to sleep on their back if they have a Snoo”—which is the same for a lot of other products that keep the baby on their back.
The Snoo is a luxury product. It costs a lot, even if you rent. There are add-ons—sleep sacks and swaddles and sheets—that only work with the Snoo. How did people in the company talk to you about how the Snoo is positioned in the market of baby stuff?
It was interesting because a lot of people who I spoke with who worked at Happiest Baby had negative things to say about the company, but a lot of them believed that the Snoo could do some real good. And especially for those people, I think some were uncomfortable with how it was being presented: this kind of luxury, celebrity-focused marketing. I talked to some customer service employees who said that it was some employees’ jobs just to deal with influencers and celebrity clients. They were getting a different level of care than the average customer would, and that made people uncomfortable.
What is the company culture at Happiest Baby?
This is a company that came up with something that was genius. They’ve been able to see massive success, but if it were run by people who didn’t micromanage the company, did not make employees feel uncomfortable, did not kind of create all of these weird surveillance tactics, they would be able to achieve so much more.
People told me that the office cleaner was taking notes on when people are at their desk and when they’re going to the bathroom. It was a really, really wild level of surveillance that was extremely strange and really weighed on people and drove them out of the company. I had one person who said that she was summoned into the co-founder’s office and presented with this list of exactly when she had arrived in the office every morning down to the exact minute and then exactly how long she left for lunch on her 15-minute lunch break.
When negative reviews of the company appeared on the website Glassdoor, where people anonymously review their employers, workers were encouraged by the founders to write positive things about Happiest Baby.
Reviews are complaining about micromanagement and then employees were saying that the founders were micromanaging their response to this. Even with my article, we reached out for a comment, and instead of immediately addressing those concerns, we got dozens of responses supposedly from current and former employees at Happiest Baby—but the names were all blacked out and we were not given the chance to talk to any of these employees. And then one of the employees who wrote that response reached out to me and said, “Hey, please don’t use a response if you get one from me. I felt like I had to say this company’s great because if I didn’t, I was worried I was going to lose my job.” So it was definitely a feedback loop: When people had a hard time, they had nowhere to go because of the fear of upper management.
What did the company say in response to your reporting?
They denied a lot of the things I’d heard from many, many employees, especially the conclusions that I drew. Around medical issues, they provided people who were working at the company who said that the concerns over babies struggling to transition away from the Snoo or it interfering with natural development were inaccurate. They said the concerns on the company culture were “factually inaccurate.” On SIDS, they said, “We’ve never claimed to prevent SIDS,” which is interesting—when you read the actual language on the site, you can say maybe it was not explicitly said, but there was some pretty aggressive linkage between the Snoo and SIDS.
I was definitely a complete psycho in the early months of my son’s life. But there is also this thing about technology where we’re so accustomed to letting tech into various parts of our lives now—so at least in 2020 when I had my son, it seemed weirdly natural that tech would be in my baby’s life, too. I’m wondering whether there is some pushback against that ease, and if we’re a little more skeptical in 2023. Even in the short period of time that the Snoo has been on the market, I feel like American attitudes toward technology have changed somewhat. What do you think?
After reporting this out, I don’t think that tech is necessarily a bad thing to introduce into infants’ lives. I think that the Snoo and other devices like it can have a lot of uses, but I do think that it’s good to have some skepticism. There are uses for this, it might help certain babies, but it’s not proven to prevent SIDS. It’s not proven to increase sleep in all children. There are things that we need to remain skeptical of, where we can say, “This can help certain children”—but by allowing this hype to build and build and build, I think it makes it more difficult to understand what kids need and what parents need, and it feeds into these anxieties of, “If I don’t buy this, if I don’t do this, I’m failing my kid.”
I have seen these videos of Harvey Karp—and they’re old, they’re probably late ’90s Harvey Karp—walking in, holding babies, rocking them, shushing up close to their ear really loudly … and it works; they fall asleep like instantaneously. It’s really fascinating to think about the distance between Harvey Karp, pediatrician, his hands lovingly cradling a child—the intimacy of that—and then this mechanical bassinet rotating your child back and forth like they are a little astronaut about to blast off.
Karp’s early stuff is almost uncomfortably hands-on when you watch it. It’s so visceral. It’s something that works, but when you’re watching videos of it, it almost feels too intimate or too hands-on to see. That, versus the very sterile Snoo, is a departure. I think that Karp identified a very real problem, which is that parents feel pretty isolated a lot of the time. They feel like, “Oh, I can’t turn to other people in my community, my own parents, and have them help in a hands-on way.” Harvey Karp basically said, “Here’s something that can be that extra set of hands. Instead of having grandparents living with you, maybe this is something that you can rely on to do that extra shift as a parent.” He came up with the idea that a baby is in its fourth trimester after it’s born, and it needs that constant, hands-on, really womb-like environment. But instead of encouraging that to continue to be from parents or from caregivers, he’s saying we can have a robot do it. Which isn’t a terrible thing, but it’s a real departure from how he started out.
Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.