To the Robobassinet and Progress

June 21st, 2021
kids, tech
Most parents of small babies, if they could, would be happy to have someone gently cuddle, shush, and rock their baby back to sleep when they needed settling at night. Babies can't comfortably soothe themselves to sleep yet, but taking care of them is exhausting work.

Wealthy people have historically handled this problem by hiring nurses, but paying someone to spend the night looking after your baby can't ever be within reach for most people. On the other hand, these simple actions are a very good fit for automation. We can't automate everything: diaper changing and feeding are much more complicated, but soothing a baby to sleep is actually a good fit for a machine!

With our first two babies we coslept, swaddling them in an annex off the bed. Once they were old enough to roll over we stopped swaddling and moved them to a crib. When this worked well, the baby would wake, quietly snuffle, wake Julia, nurse, and go back to sleep. When it didn't work well I was doing a lot of walking, bouncing, patting, and shushing. And so much frustration when a baby who had fallen asleep in your arms would wake when you set them down. And Julia says she couldn't fully relax while sleeping because she needed to pay a little bit of continuing attention to not rolling onto the baby and keeping the covers clear. We were both very tired all the time.

With our newborn, we have an automatic "Snoo" bassinet, and works very well. You swaddle the baby and clip them into the bassinet so they can't roll over. When you turn it on, it plays white noise and gently swivels to rock the baby to sleep. It listens to the noises the baby makes, and if they're not settling it swivels a bit more vigorously and plays louder white noise. If they still don't settle after a few escalations, though, it gives up and you come and figure out whether the baby needs food, a new diaper, or something else. We only have five nights of experience with it, but it seems to work very well and the ideas behind it make sense.

Note: the 3:05-8:15 block on the fourth night is wrong: there was a feed in the middle, we just forgot to turn off the Snoo.

It doesn't look like anything like this existed when our previous child was born; I can't find specific dates, but the initial round of publicity announcing it dates to late October 2016.

One downside is that it makes the early parenting experience even more lopsided: it has essentially entirely automated my part, while Julia is still waking up several times in the night for nursing. We are both getting better sleep than with previous babies, but much more of the benefit is going to me. Since we do want to continue with nursing I'm trying to put in additional work elsewhere as much as I can.

Another is cost. We bought a used one (which turned out to have been unopened—lucky), but new they cost $1,500. They do seem well-built, but I suspect a large portion of what you are paying for is their coming up with and marketing this new idea. Which I don't grudge them!

Just like the washing machine and dishwasher started as expensive machines and are now to the point where most American families can have one, I expect automated bassinets to follow a similar trajectory. You fund your research and development by selling expensive devices to people who can afford them (but not people so rich as to be hiring night nurses), and then either you or competitors make progressively cheaper versions until they get down to closer to the cost of materials. In this case, it looks to me like the materials should be able to be get pretty cheap, and there are already cheaper alternatives.

This seems straightforwardly good to me, but then we get takes like this one in the Washington Post under Baby sleep aids are big business. But companies are peddling a fantasy:

But the ideal they peddle is something of an illusion: No product, at any price point, is likely to solve the problem of getting babies to sleep. More important, some of the devices that bleary-eyed parents turn to are downright unsafe, often because of the risk of accidental suffocation. The reality is that the best way for a baby to sleep is probably the most brutal for parents, and despite a booming industry, there's little hope of spending or innovating your way out of it.
(They acknowledge later in the piece that accidental suffocation is not an issue with this kind of fully flat bassinet.)

Even if the automatic bassinets of today were not able to reliably soothe babies to sleep, this would still be the wrong attitude: parental sleep deprivation is a major issue, and progress on it is both possible and valuable.

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