How much are parents willing to spend for their infants to sleep soundly? According to Dr. Harvey Karp, an LA-based pediatrician and children’s author, about $1,300.
That is the price tag Karp put on the Snoo, the smart baby bassinet he debuted in 2016. Based on a theory he premiered in his 2003 book The Happiest Baby on the Block, called “the 5 S’s,” the bed is meant to mimic a womblike environment that allows a baby to sleep more soundly. (The 5 S’s stand for “swaddle,” “shush,” “swing,” “suck,” and “side or stomach”; these principles are present in the bed’s design.) The Snoo activates when a baby wakes up and responds by rocking gently and playing white noise. A baby is swaddled and secured with snaps into the bed, which prevents the baby from rolling into unsafe positions.
While the Snoo has received plenty of praise from sleep-deprived parents, Karp has also been criticized for the price of his invention. Last year, the New York Times Magazine noted that much of Karp’s initial popularity stemmed from his supposed empowerment of parents who “didn’t require anything fancy.” With the invention of the Snoo, the Times wrote, “he was suggesting that, actually, the best way to improve your baby’s sleep required splurging on a sensory bed … that child rearing is inherently tied to social status, that you have to spend in order to care.”
Now Karp is looking to make the Snoo more accessible. On Tuesday, his company Happiest Baby announced that it will begin renting out its luxury bassinet to parents for $149 a month, with a one-month minimum rental. Babies can sleep in the Snoo up until they’re about six months old, so using it over the full span would cost a customer around $900 — less than the original price tag of $1,300, but still up there. According to Karp, though, this is a steal, since if you break down the monthly cost, it comes out to about $5 a day.
“Parents are getting sick because they think they have to suck it up and feel exhausted for the first few months their baby is born,” Karp told me during a recent phone interview. “The Snoo introduces a new concept: Both parents and the baby get more sleep. Is that worth the cost of a cup of coffee?”
While the Snoo will still be available for purchase, such a business model falls in line with shopping trends coming out of the sharing economy. Shoppers, especially debt-conscious millennials, are hyper-aware of spending, so they are turning to noncommittal spending on clothes and transportation. When faced with today’s never-ending array of products, they are also enticed by the freedom of not having to commit to owning.
Both Karp and the Happiest Baby website cite studies done to demonstrate the Snoo’s efficacy — some paid for by the company. According to one study, babies who sleep in the Snoo get one to three more hours of sleep than babies who don’t. Another study found that 84 percent of parents who had the Snoo didn’t bed-share, which doctors say is one of the causes of SIDS. Schools like the University of Michigan and UCLA are also studying how the Snoo can help with postpartum depression.
Karp says more than 20,000 bassinets have been sold, and that his company is profitable (the business includes several books, DVDs, bassinet linen, swaddles, white noise apps, and more smart baby products are on deck for 2020). But he admits that the Snoo wasn’t necessarily an ideal purchase for many parents, since the bassinet can only hold up to 25 pounds, so parents were likely storing it a few months after buying it for their baby. Because of the product’s popularity, plenty of parents have also been able to buy the Snoo secondhand or rent it from existing owners — a stream of funds Karp’s company now has access to.
Since it hit the market, the Snoo has been showered with praise. It’s received product awards from the National Sleep Foundation and the Juvenile Products Manufacturers Association, and has been the subject of glowing reviews from New York magazine, Fast Company, Goop, and users on Reddit.
Karp, who is quite the salesperson, told me that parents should see the Snoo as “a member of the family.”
“It’s not a baby bed; it listens and responds to a baby’s needs the way a caregiver would,” he said. “You cannot buy safety or sleep, but the Snoo is the only bed that prevents babies from rolling to an unsafe position, and that increases baby’s sleep.”
The Snoo is just one item in the vast world of sleep products. The sleep economy these days generates between $30 billion and $40 billion annually, according to the consulting company McKinsey. There’s been an unprecedented influx of companies selling mattresses, sheets, and pajamas, as well as all sorts of gadgets, from sleep trackers to spooning robots.
Baby sleep, in particular, has turned into a booming business. During the first few months of life, infants eat every two to four hours, and wake up during the night for feedings. Sleep coaches help teach parents tricks to get their infants to sleep through the night, or at least to extend their sleep cycles. There are thousands of books for sale on Amazon on this subject, as well as gadgets like military-grade baby monitors that track breathing and temperature. Sleep coaches, who command a fee as high as $7,500, are popular hires too.
Karp says that parents with infants who get better sleep can skirt stress, anxiety, and other difficult symptoms of sleep deprivation that come with a new baby. He isn’t wrong: Research has blamed lack of sleep for nearly 1,000 fatal traffic accidents in the US annually, and one survey found that the American economy reportedly takes a $100 billion hit each year from drowsy adults. Studies have also found that new parents who are tired can have a hard time expressing joy, and that sleep-deprived parents often react more intensely to negative stimuli.
Plenty of parents do swear by the Snoo.
“The snoo has come to our rescue and we are ever so grateful for its existence,” one customer wrote on the Snoo website. “I wish I had bought it sooner of course, not 3 months in. After literally never sleeping more than a 2 hour stretch if I was lucky for three months, there is no price I can put on sleep. My son went from only getting 2 hr stretches of sleep (3 occasionally) to sleeping 7 hr stretches the past 3 nights of using the snoo. My husband jokingly said that we could have 11 more now.”
“As first time parents, we were super nervous about sleeping, SIDs etc,” another wrote. “We purchased the snoo mainly for the swaddle aspect as it gives such a piece of mind that she is secure and won’t roll. She sleeps like a champ in it. Overall we love the fact of knowing that she is safe!”
On the Snoo’s Instagram account, the product is flooded with comments like “my 6 week old is sleeping a 6 hour stretch already thanks to the magic of the @happiest_baby” and sentiments like “Seriously life changing worth every single penny.”
In order to benefit from Snoo-induced relief, though, you’d need to be able to afford it in the first place, which is not a luxury everyone has. And it’s worth noting that researchers at the University of Rochester Medical Center have found that more than half of low-income mothers suffer from postpartum depression — women who might benefit from a product like the Snoo, if it were more affordable.
“Personally they better throw in a mortgage payment with the bassinet if I’m spending that much,” one parent commented about the product on Baby Center. “Holy s*** balls lol I’d tell my kids to cry it out for that price tag,” another wrote.
Some publications have said the Snoo isn’t worth its high cost: “Does any parent need to spend roughly a thousand dollars on a product that is engineered to be of no use once their kid reaches 6 months of age? After spending several weeks testing the Snoo alongside more typical bedside sleepers, we think the answer is no,” Wirecutter wrote in its review. “The Snoo isn’t just more expensive than any other bedside sleeper we tested — it’s many times more expensive.”
Others have pointed out that dropping so much money on a baby product isn’t wise because all babies are different, and so the investment isn’t worth it. Parents have said their babies couldn’t handle the bed’s motion, while other infants don’t like to be swaddled. One blog even recounted how some babies have managed to outsmart the tech: The Snoo spends a few minutes trying to soothe the baby, and so “cleverer kids tend to maintain a low-wail until the device shuts down, then they switch to [a] high pitched wail.”
Karp is unapologetic about the retail price of the Snoo, and even when pressed about the claim that he is exploiting desperate parents, he maintains the product is worth it.
“It’s not an expensive, chichi toy; it’s critical to modern life,” he says. “We’ve seen two kinds of parents who buy the Snoo: people who can afford it and people who can’t. And that’s because it’s a tool that makes parenting more efficient, just like we’ve found vacuum cleaners and dishwashers save you time. This is not about the commodification of sleep; this is about helping a sleep-deprived society.”
Still, he points out that a rental model will likely be more beneficial for parents. Paying $149 a month for a bed is still a steep price for plenty, especially considering parents are a particularly vulnerable population. But Karp’s ultimate goal is to get hospitals and other medical facilities to rent out the smart bassinet. More than 20 companies across the country have also started covering some of the costs of the Snoo for their employees, and Karp says he’s working with insurance companies to add the Snoo to their list of covered gadgets, which include things like breast pumps.
Renting ultimately seems like a better approach the Snoo since it’s a way to test out if a baby takes to the bed. The breakdown of the costs makes some sense too, since parents do save more money renting on a monthly basis — although Karp points out it’s a better investment if families intend to use the Snoo with more than one child.
“We see this as a real step forward for parents because it’s not just about sleep; it’s also about safety,” he says. “Now with rentals, we can make the case even more that this is something parents need and have access to.”
Karp anticipates renting will soon be the primary way parents will spend money on the Snoo, which is fine with him. That lower cost, like coffee, still adds up.
Update 1/8: This story has been updated with information about the secondhand market for Snoos and insurance coverage of breast pumps.