Seven weeks after Jessica Scalia gave birth to her son, James, the situation was both extremely common and completely dire. Her son was not sleeping, which meant she and her husband weren’t, either.
“I was desperate,” she says. “I was willing to try anything.”
So, at an ungodly hour on one particularly bad night, she made an impulse decision to rent a Snoo — a nearly $1,500 robotic bassinet that automatically soothes fussy babies with motion and white noise.
She had heard about the Snoo, which uses artificial intelligence and sensors to listen for a baby’s cries and rock them back to sleep, but had written off the device as overhyped. The company behind the Snoo, Happiest Baby, claimed that it could give parents an extra two hours of sleep each night, which sounded like a fantasy to Scalia. And friends who used it evangelized — and bragged — about their sleep-gifted infants.
“Before I had a baby, I [was] just like, this is ridiculous,” says Scalia, who lives in Nashville, Tennessee. “Who needs to spend this much money on a bassinet, especially when there are so many more affordable options?”
By the end of the first week with the Snoo, Scalia had become a believer. James, who had previously never slept more and an hour and a half at a time, could sleep four hours at a time.
Meanwhile, in Minnesota’s Twin Cities, colleagues were asking Alicia House how her newborn son, Harten, was sleeping — “You know, in a sarcastic, sort of snarky way,” she says. “Almost like they know in their mind, ‘Oh, you’re not sleeping, and this must be really rough.’ “
Little did they know, House had started Harten in the Snoo a few days after he was born. “Actually, really well,” she’d respond, delighting that this was both an unexpected answer and a truthful one.
And over in Lafayette, California, Chelsea Azevedo found the Snoo to be so effective for her daughter, Sophie, that some nights she found herself awoken by the need to pump breast milk for her baby, who remained fast asleep.
“I would be so jealous of her,” she says.
Few other technological advancements have inspired the same level of reverence among parents, bordering on religious devotion, as the Snoo. Invented by pediatrician Harvey Karp, the Snoo automates the principles that Karp has long taught in his book, “The Happiest Baby on the Block”: that babies can be prompted to sleep with stimuli that mimic the conditions of the womb, including swaddling and swinging.
But for some parents, the Snoo has become yet another vehicle for judgment, anxiety and privilege. The fancy bassinet has a way of separating even well-to-do parents into the Snoos and the Snoo-nots. The former group doesn’t help their case much when they brag about all the restful sleep they and their infants are getting every night.
Basically, the bassinet has become an emblem of everything there is to love and lament about the millennial yuppie parenting lifestyle.
Notably, the Snoo does not look like a robot. Its shape is more akin to the Scandinavian and midcentury designs that are popping up in stylish nurseries: a white, minimalist bassinet with hairpin legs that looks great on Instagram.
But because it “listens” for a baby’s fussing and adjusts the level of motion and sound accordingly, and pings mom and dad via an app if the fussing continues, and keeps a daily log of the baby’s sleep and wake-up times, it can appear intimidatingly futuristic.
“My in-laws were like, ‘Uh, what is this thing? It looks like an alien spaceship,’ ” says Carolina Wagner, a new mom in Windsor, Ontario.
“I had to, like, soothe everyone around me,” says Wagner, who assured her husband’s parents that the Snoo was “not a robo-nanny.”
At a time when people have willingly allowed the Internet of Things to take over their homes and cars and exercise routines, some people may still see child care — particularly the relationship between parents and newborns — as dicey territory for even the most benevolent-seeming technology.
“This is a microcosm of the greater conversation that we’re having about the role of technology and robots and AI in our lives, and how far we want to let that go,” says Virginia Salo, a postdoctoral scholar at Vanderbilt University who studies parent-child interaction, and has begun a study of the Snoo.
Salo has also used the device as a parent, and found it helpful. Rather than some ungodly combination of Mary Poppins and the HAL 9000, she says it’s possible to think of the Snoo as something more like a high-tech pacifier.
Karp, the Snoo developer, suggests an even less threatening analogy. “It’s like a vacuum cleaner,” he says, “or, you know, a blender.”
Kristina, a 31-year-old new mom who lives in Ottawa, says she doesn’t want her friends to know she has a Snoo because her family and neighbors have been so judgmental. Some members of her family have told her Snoo users are “lazy” and “taking the easy way out” and that “back in the day, we had to rock our baby to sleep.”
“When it was delivered, it was on our front porch. And the neighbors saw it and didn’t say anything then, but when our little one was born, they said, ‘How is he sleeping?’ ” When Kristina told them he was sleeping well, “They’re like, ‘Yeah, of course he is, because you’re cheating.’ ”
“I think the judgment first stems from jealousy,” says Camila Spaeth, of Houston. “They couldn’t afford the $1,500 price tag.”
You don’t have to pay that much, Spaeth points out: She bought her Snoo secondhand, on Facebook Marketplace, for $500 and plans to resell it as soon as her son, Jaxon, outgrows it.
“You can pretty much spend as little as zero to 50 bucks on it, and get somewhere between four and six months out of it,” she says.
Alternatively, Happiest Baby will rent you a Snoo from the company for about $150 a month — rentals now account for half the Snoo population.
“Our goal is to have teachers and truckers and nurses” using Snoo, not just the privileged few, says Karp, who pushed back on the notion that the device is pricey.
The secondhand Snoo market has become so hot that a new scam has popped up: Thieves rent a Snoo on a credit card, which they cancel, so the company can’t continue to charge them the monthly rental fee. They then sell the Snoo to another set of unwitting parents, who bring it home to discover that the company has remotely disabled the device — meaning they’ve just bought a very expensive motionless bassinet.
One hapless parent, sharing their story of a stolen Snoo on Reddit’s “SnooLife” forum, called the company to see what could be done. “I tell them my story and the best the can offer is a discount on a new one, or the same rate for a rental one,” they wrote. “But the best part, they want their unit back.”
“When these issues are brought to our attention, we work directly with customers to sort out exactly what is going on,” a company spokeswoman said, encouraging people to rent directly from Happiest Baby to avoid problems.
There are broader public health applications for the Snoo’s technology. Poor sleep can lead to postpartum depression, and a 2020 study by a team of researchers at Penn State University found that “irregular maternal sleep patterns are significant predictors of poor quality of mothering with infants at bedtime.” Karp says the Snoo prevents Sudden Infant Death Syndrome by keeping babies strapped in a swaddle on their backs, the safest position. It is being studied for use in hospitals, particularly with children with health complications.
Just as some parents worry that their children can become dependent on pacifiers, other parents worry that their children — or, really, they — could become dependent on the Snoo. Which can mean problems if the technology goes wonky on them.
One Reddit post about a month ago from a frazzled parent noted that the European servers were down, and she could not connect to her app. A common question in forums is how to bring a Snoo on a plane, or where to rent one at a destination.
Spaeth, the Houston mom, has a backup generator that will power her Snoo if the electricity goes out, like it did in Texas during a winter storm earlier this year.
“I don’t know how our trip is going to go because we cannot bring the Snoo to Mexico, but I wish we could,” says Azevedo, fretting about an upcoming vacation.
Marissa Niemyjski talks about her Snoo as if it’s another member of the family along with her daughter, Lily.
“We’ll be eating dinner or something and we’ll hear crying on the monitor as we’re watching her, and we’ll say, ‘Oh, just let the Snoo do its thing,’ ” she says. “Right now, at 10 weeks, she just slept 10 hours last night.”
Parents also can fall into unhealthy patterns obsessing over the data their Snoo collects. Some of the members of various Snoo social media groups post screenshots of their logs, either to troubleshoot — a lot of red means the baby needed plenty of soothing — or to brag about their placid, uninterrupted 10-hour sleep stints. On the SnooLife subreddit, the latter is called a “Snoo Flex” or sometimes a “waterfall” — the shape that a blue line of perfect night sleep makes in the chart.
“Chasing waterfalls,” as Wagner calls it, can lead to anxiety.
Salo, the Vanderbilt researcher, experienced something like that as a Snoo user.
“I would find myself checking it in the morning and having the thought process of like, ‘Oh, this is what happened per the data, so today is going to be a good day, or a bad day,’ ” Salo says. She had to force herself to stop checking them so frequently.
But the waterfalls are still aspirational. Once Wagner’s daughter hit 12 hours of sleep, she says, “It really felt like I made it. I’m in the club.”