The pediatrician behind the Happiest Baby empire turned night-night into a $50 million business—and he won’t rest until parents do.
The Snoo Bassinet may be the crown jewel of baby registries, but its inventor, renowned pediatrician Dr. Harvey Karp, is on a mission to reposition the “smart crib” less as a Rolls-Royce for a new nursery, and more as a life-saving device for babies and new mothers.
“Most have thought of it as a luxury item, like Moses’ basket or a high-end crib,” says Dr. Karp, “but what it really is, is a caregiver adding hours to baby’s sleep.”
The Snoo Smart Sleep Bassinet, which retails for $1,295, has a sleek design, with organic cotton mesh lining and a wooden base. But the unassuming bassinet also functions as a robotic mother’s assistant and sleep-trainer. It processes a baby’s cries and auto-responds with gentle rocking and white noise, similar to the sensations inside the mother’s womb. By mimicking the in utero environment, babies are soothed and experience better and longer sleep; this in turn also helps new parents to rest and recover during the first few months of a baby’s life, the so-called fourth trimester.
His techniques have helped Dr. Karp achieve a cult following among new parents, including mom influencers and medical professionals. “That was the first time we saw targeted education that pediatricians could share with parents on how to calm and soothe a baby and how that whole interaction can build that relationship between parent and baby,” says Dr. Colleen Kraft, immediate past president of the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP).
Around the same time his first book was released, Dr. Karp launched Happiest Baby, Inc., which sells educational videos and training programs to thousands of hospitals, clinics and military bases in more than 20 countries. Karp remains CEO while his wife and cofounder, Nina Montée Karp, leads strategy and brand development. Their daughter, Lexi, 36, is acting head of marketing.
While Dr. Karp’s books proved helpful to parents during the day, he understood that they needed more guidance and support at night. After a decade of running Happiest Baby, Karp found himself inching further away from retirement with the invention of the Snoo. He teamed up with acclaimed designer Yves Béhar and MIT engineers to follow safety guidelines from the American Academy of Pediatrics.
In 2014, Karp unveiled the Snoo bassinets by raising $2.5 million from friends and family. The next year, after solid sales, he turned to venture capital, and to date, has raised $58 million from firms such as Greycroft and Switzerland-based Bulb Capital.
Today, Dr. Karp’s Los Angeles-based company has 102 employees with offices in New York and Belgrade, Serbia. Karp says annual revenue for 2019 surpassed $50 million, having doubled since 2018 as a result of pivoting to a rental model as well as corporate partnerships that provided the bassinet as a subsidized benefit.
Dr. Karp’s 5 S’s to Soothe a Crying Baby
SWADDLE: The cornerstone of calming, swaddling recreates the snug feeling of the womb.
SIDE OR STOMACH POSITION: The back is the only safe position for sleeping. To calm a baby, hold her on the side, stomach, or over your shoulder.
SHUSH: Silence is overrated. White noise mimics the soothing sound of the blood flow in the womb.
SWING: Use fast, tiny motions to soothe a crying infant.
SUCK: Pacifiers can help fussy babies relax into deep tranquility.
During an intimate breakfast in February with a group of new and expectant mothers at The Culinistas Kitchen in New York City, the fit and bespectacled doctor’s tone shifts constantly. Like a doctor with a calm crib-side manner, the 68-year-old Karp is matter-of-fact when discussing facts about the grim state of maternal health in the United States. Occasionally he’s animated and uses a singsong voice while mimicking a typical exchange between a toddler in the trenches of the terrible twos and distressed parent. He will stop at nothing—including committing to role play of both parent and child—to accurately demonstrate his tips and techniques for calming infants, babies and toddlers.
In addition to caregiving advice, one of Karp’s main messages is shining light on how changes in household dynamics have set up new parents for failure. “Up until 100 years ago, people had five unpaid nannies,” Dr. Karp explains. “The grandma, the neighbor, the aunt, cousins and sisters. Now parents don’t have that and moms think they’re supposed to do this all on their own, which is not at all what a normal mom has done throughout history. So, parents need to recognize they deserve help.”
This meant designing a bed that would keep babies safely on the back all night to prevent suffocation. In addition to rocking and white noise, the sleeper connects to an app that allows parents to log sleep habits, monitor cries and adjust sounds and motions.
“My goal is to reduce sudden infant death syndrome by 90%,” says Dr. Karp. The Snoo is currently designated by the FDA as a “breakthrough device” and is being evaluated as a potentially life-saving medical device. If it gets approval, the bassinet would be partially covered by health insurance.
Dr. Colleen Kraft of the AAP and a mother to three grown children, agrees that the Snoo was groundbreaking. “We can now use tech to help to address some of the most unsolvable things we faced as parents and pediatricians: how to make a baby sleep and improve sleep,” she says.
“By improving their sleep we’ve seen women go from suicidal to the road to recovery within 2-3 days once they get better sleep,” says Dr. Karp. According to CDC research, about 1 in 9 women experience symptoms of postpartum depression in the U.S. With approximately 4 million live births occurring each year in the country, it is estimated that 600,000-750,000 are diagnosed with postpartum depression.
“I was getting frustrated with that,” Dr. Karp says. “If I can deliver these techniques all night long, babies can sleep an extra hour or two and reduce stress for parents … think of this as your big sister moving in.”
To date, some 50 corporations have signed on, including Facebook, Google, Hulu, WW International and Under Armour. Companies are then required to survey employees for feedback. “Our little girl absolutely loves it,” Rebecca Resnick, a creative strategist at Facebook reported. “At 6 weeks old she already sleeps five- to six-hour stretches through the night. I could actually cry thinking about how amazing the Snoo is.”
Consumers can now rent a Snoo bassinet for less than $4 a day—lower if rented through a partner company. At breakfast, Karp removes his doctor’s coat and puts on his marketing cap to explain the company’s ROI. He explains that with 33% of women not returning to the workforce the year after their baby is born, companies will save money on recruiting and retraining.
“The rented cost equates to a cup of a Starbucks cappuccino, which poor tired parents are already spending on.”
Dr. Karp’s 5 Tips for Raising Resilient Kids During COVID-19
For toddlers, pick a reading time when your child is tired. Use books with cloth or cardboard pages and turn the book into a game.
Try to establish some daily rituals (like doing a puzzle or picking out an outfit) that give them a sense of order.
If you have a partner, take turns frequently. Give each other breaks—even as little as 10 minutes a day—to recharge.
Make time to sleep! Go to bed early to reduce tension, anxiety, and irritability. Plus, sleep improves immunity.
Cut yourself some slack. Straying from a normal routine is fine. Being flexible is a trait of savvy parents.
So far, about 100,000 families have opted for the rental route. “From the very beginning,” says Dr. Karp, “we designed the bed to undergo 30 to 40 million cycles because we wanted to be able to rent the beds and serve not just the 1% but the 100% of parents who need extra help.”
To that end, Happiest Baby has donated hundreds of Snoos to more than 55 hospitals, including Boston Children’s to study how to best comfort babies withdrawing from opiates, Children’s Mercy in Kansas City for a pilot study on babies who’ve undergone heart surgery, and Monash Medical Centre in Melbourne Australia on the Snoo’s prevention of postpartum depression.
But in recent weeks Dr. Karp has been focused on helping mothers affected by the coronavirus as well as overwhelmed hospitals. “Our goal is to help the poor nurses who are so short-staffed,” says Dr. Karp. “They’re busy feeding, taking vital signs and they can’t rock every baby to sleep.” So, the bassinet becomes a robo-nurse.
In recent weeks, Dr. Karp has also found himself fielding a lot of questions from frazzled moms and dads working from home with a baby or toddler in tow. “Now, parents have all their regular work and parenting responsibilities, with less and less support: serving as the stand-in teacher, substitute playmate which is far more demanding than it sounds and combined mom, cousin, aunt, grandma…rolled into one,” says Dr. Karp.
“That’s totally abnormal—and heroic.”
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