Somewhere, right now, there is a baby who should be sleeping. Instead, she is screaming in a crib, wailing in a stroller, or sitting up, eyes wide open, in a car being driven endlessly in circles. But there is one baby who isn’t. Jack is four and a half months old, and he just passed out in his mother’s arms. She is sitting on a grey felt rocking chair, and on a nearby table, a down-tempo, slightly spacey version of Brahms’s “Lullaby” is playing from a Bluetooth-connected gizmo, a cylindrical speaker and night light, all of which she is controlling with her iPhone.

“At home I like to use the Sleep Stages,” Jack’s mother says softly to a researcher who is taking notes in a binder. Mother and son are at the research nursery of Fisher-Price, at company headquarters in East Aurora, New York, just outside Buffalo. While several Fisher-Price colleagues observe the interaction behind a one-way mirror in the next room, Jack’s mother is answering the researcher’s questions about how she has been using the Smart Connect Deluxe Soother at home the past few weeks. “The music was really great for his naps, and at night, I did more of the Soothing,” the mother says. The digital soother is a relatively new product for Fisher-Price — it quietly hit the North American market in June 2017 at a retail price of $49.99 (US). The company regularly conducts research on its products to shape the designs and marketing of future versions.

The Smart Connect Deluxe Soother is, essentially, a smartphone-enabled music box made to sit atop a nightstand in a baby’s room and usher a child to rest and, ultimately, to sleep. It uses three distinct blocks of music and sound in a combination called Sleep Stages. First, there is Settle music, which captures the baby’s attention. Then Soothe music, which begins to relax the baby. And ­finally, Sleep, the ­knockout punch of ambient noise.

While the device does not seem all that sophisticated, it is the result of more than a year of research and development involving teams of cognitive scientists and audio engineers. Parents of newborns are a desperate and temptable market. Sleep is essential to our survival and health, and it’s the key to happiness, stress relief, and growth, and a baby’s sleep is inti­mately tied to that of her parents. And yet babies are as close as it comes to biology’s perfect device for sleep depri­vation. It can take months, if not longer, before they learn to sleep through the night. For the first four months of their lives, they lack a circadian rhythm and need to feed every few hours.

For the parent of a newborn (especially if it’s their first child), sudden sleep loss arrives as a brutal shock to the system. Repeated night wakings, ­approximately three times over the course of a night, can lead to increased depression, increased fatigue and confusion levels, and reduced vigour in parents. One study from 2000 noted that a lack of sleep was the equivalent of consuming too much ­alcohol in terms of motor skills and cognitive performance (i.e., what you have to do at work), while another traced a link ­between babies who woke more often and incidences of postpartum depression in their mothers. Raising young children, ­especially in the first year, has been shown to lead to a decrease in marital happiness, largely due to sleep deprivation. You don’t need a team of PhDs to figure any of this out, of course. Parenthood is a cranky, irritable endeavour, and no more so than in those first precious months, when the baby’s sleep is a nightly crapshoot and everyone is running on empty.

When my daughter was born five years ago, she had colic. If she was awake, she was crying. Because sleep was my wife’s and my only reprieve, we did ­everything to encourage it: white-noise apps, ­stroller walks in the middle of the night, car rides on gravel roads, at least four different rockers and swings, incessant swaddling and shushing and bouncing and singing. Sometimes it worked, but rarely consistently, and the cumulative effect of our exhaustion drove us mad. I vividly recall my wife, standing nude with the baby in her arms, singing Garth Brooks’s “The River” over and over for an hour, as their combined tears melded into a ­river of desperation. Our son, born three years later, was easier, but even he woke up howling at 4:30 a.m. the night before I visited Fisher-Price’s headquarters, and nothing could settle him back down.

Some products promising babies (and their parents) a better night’s sleep include the $1,160 (US) SNOO smart crib, created by author of The Happiest Baby on the Block and ­baby sleep guru Harvey Karp, which uses sensors, sound monitoring, and other technology to create what its designer Yves Béhar described as “a robot that takes care of your baby at night.” There are apps claiming they can help a baby sleep, wearables that track sleep patterns and vital signs, pillows and dolls to reduce colic and mimic the womb’s sounds, lavender pillow sprays, and a glorified straightjacket to keep kids from startling themselves.

“There’s nothing like sleep ­deprivation to drive people in search of solutions,” says Alan Fields, who owns Baby Bargains, an independent baby-gear review website. Jodi Mindell, who chairs the Pediatric Sleep Council, says that what works for babies older than six months is consistent bedtimes and routines, ­including baths, and learning to fall back asleep by soothing themselves when they inevitably wake up two or three times a night. But sticking to routines and listening to a baby cry himself to sleep requires tremendous fortitude and ­patience, so parents turn to products, even if, Mindell says, “there isn’t really any data that these things improve sleep.”

Fisher-Price has been making toys since 1930 and baby gear for nearly four decades. The company sells more than 100 different baby products to parents all over the world each year. But, while sleep was often a happy side effect of its products (my kids logged countless naps in a Fisher-­Price My Little Snugabunny Cradle ’n Swing), selling better sleep has become a core goal of the company ­only over the past decade.

“Sleep is so much more of a focus for us now, and what a pain point it is for parents,” says Domenic Gubitosi, Fisher-­Price’s director of product design, baby gear. “Thirty years ago, we just put out a bassinet and said, ‘Here ya go — sleep!’ Now we have to deliver better options and solutions to parents.” Delivering those options means studying how babies sleep. And, over the past few years, scores of babies have been carried ­into the ­research centre in New York state, where their fitful twitching and drooping eyelids have been faithfully recorded, catalogued, and analyzed in an effort to decode what, if anything, might help that baby nod off.

Though the new soother comes with preset music for the three timed stages, the app allows parents to customize these times and the sounds. “Most recently, I moved to ten minutes of ­Settle and then fifteen of Soothing,” Jack’s ­mother tells the researcher, noting that she ­usually leaves the Sleep feature on all night, mostly on the “pink noise” ­setting. With her first son, she had tried all sorts of sleep inducements, ­including ­country music and white noise, but when her second son woke in the middle of the night for a feeding, she simply restarted the Sleep Stages cycle with a tap of her finger on the smartphone app after she finished feeding him. Sometimes when he woke between feedings, she didn’t even leave her bed.

When Fisher-Price began looking at new sleep solutions two years ago, music was the best tool at hand. It offered a blank slate for innovation that steered clear of liabilities around where and how a baby slept and could be used across its entire line of ­baby products — from cribs to mobiles. The Smart Connect Deluxe ­Soother is the first of what the company hopes will be a new generation of sleep-stages-equipped aids.

Fisher-Price knew it had to develop a product it could market as a sleep ­device. To do that, it needed to consider the recommendations of the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), which states that, in order to avoid sudden infant death syndrome, babies in their first year should sleep on their backs on a flat crib, without blankets or toys, in a room with their parents. The AAP does not countenance a swing, car seat, or other device to help a baby of this age sleep, which are ­frustratingly the most effective tools for this. “You want to calm your child but keep them safe,” says Karp, a veritable cele­brity in the baby-sleep world. “And you are caught in this terrible bind.” The commercial baby-sleep market is defined, in many ways, by this central contradiction.

Music has long been a part of Fisher-­Price baby toys, and it can work just as well in a crib as in a swing. But the choice of music or other sound has been dictated more by fashion than anything. A swing decorated with rainforest graphics might be paired with tropical-­sounding tracks. “We’d never intentionally sat down to take a scientific approach to understanding ­baby compositions,” says Deborah Weber, director of early childhood development research at Fisher-Price. “When it came to soothing music and noise, there was just very little research on babies.”

Baby sleep is a bit of a mystery. Sleep benefits infant development, including helping with memory and language, but the great unknown is how much sleep a baby ­actually needs, when they need it, and what will help them sleep. “We don’t know a lot,” says Rebecca Spencer, a professor of psychological and brain sciences at the University of Massachusetts Amherst and a member of the Sleep ­Research Society. “Even as scientists, we don’t know if they are sleeping enough. Should they go back to sleep? Do they need a nap? The whole question of that is really elusive.”
Weber, who has a PhD in early childhood development and has worked at Fisher-Price for more than twenty years, started by researching baby reactions to different types of music after a presentation by Angelique Millette, a clinician and baby-sleep expert based in San Fran­cisco who consulted with Fisher-Price on this project starting in February 2016. In her work with parents and their babies over the past two decades, Millette had observed that babies tend to doze off in three stages, what she called “sleep cues,” which were markers of a window for sleep, and she demonstrated them to Fisher-Price’s team as a way to produce environmental cues, such as music, to get babies to sleep.

With the goal of creating an effective soother, Weber then designed a study to measure the potential calming effect of music on babies. Two groups of babies, ranging in age from newborn to nine months old, participated in the study in the summer of 2016. The two groups were placed in either a bouncy chair or a play mat, both fitted with a GoPro camera that recorded facial expressions, which were later analyzed with face-reading software that quantified the babies’ emotional reactions. They also wore heart-rate monitors, and researchers took detailed field notes, in the room with the babies and also from behind one-way mirrors, with computers, notepads, and timers to record everything from kicks and coos to cries and head turns and the inevitable wails of distress. The first group of thirty-six babies heard eight different upbeat musical tracks, and Weber’s team ­measured which songs captured their attention the longest. The second group of twenty-eight babies was played ­eleven different soothing music and sound-­effect tracks. The point was to identify the sounds that would help the babies calm down and drift off.

Weber’s team found that the type of music that captured the babies’ attention varied greatly between age groups. A two-month-old prefers shorter tracks and music that transitions from complex to simple, like “Frère Jacques,” while a seven-month-old prefers high complexity and loves novelty. Newborns were ­irritated by the sound of other babies, but infants four months and older loved it. Most important was the finding that Millette’s theory of sleep stages worked when applied to music. Melodic music effec­tively captured the attention of fussy babies, while less melodic tunes soothed them, and finally, steady noise (white, pink, or brown noise, each with a different frequency, or sound effects like ocean waves) lulled them to sleep. This musical progression proved especially effec­tive when the stages were grad­ually introduced, without sudden breaks or jarring sounds, which the second group of babies experienced.

The results of the research were passed along to Adam Zukic, one of nine Fisher-Price ­audio engineers, who has composed music for Fisher-Price baby toys for fifteen years. He grew up near East Aurora and spent his youth playing keyboards in psychedelic funk bands in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. He likes wearing his hair in a short, greying ponytail, loves Frank Zappa, and favours the work of minimalist composers such as Philip Glass and ­Michael Nyman. Zukic and his wife (­also a sound engineer at Fisher-Price) have two kids under three years old, and his job, as he sees it, “is to not make babies cry.” He occasionally takes a recorder on camping trips to get the right babbling brook or distant thunder to put into a swing. “What the research does ­mostly for me is lay a trail in the forest where ­previously we did what we felt was right,” Zukic says of the study on the babies. “It opens up the creative potential.”

Thanks to a larger memory chip built into the Smart Connect Deluxe ­Soother to enable Bluetooth controls, Zukic was able to work with a greater range of sounds and longer pieces of music. He began composing music to break out of the monotony of synthesized clas­sical instruments and lullaby standards such as “Rock a Bye Baby” and “Twinkle, ­Twinkle, Little Star.” We all have conceptions of how lullabies should sound, he says. “But we can’t let people’s adult perceptions cloud what works.” The music in the new soother had to fulfill a ­number of goals: it had to fit into the limited storage space in the toy, it had to sell the toy, “not annoy parents,” and, most importantly, it had to help babies sleep.
Zukic’s previous approach to composing lullabies was to layer them with increasingly elaborate sounds, but the study’s findings pointed to the opposite approach: simpler was better, and he was now pursuing a “maximinimalism” sound. “A good lullaby is the KISS ­method: keep it simple, stupid. Less is more,” he says. His compositions for the Soother were heavy on repetition with an undercurrent of slowness.

To show me what he meant by this, he opened a window on his ­computer and played a new version of “Frère Jacques.” We were sitting in the eighty-square-foot soundproof cube that serves as his ­office and studio and sits in a line with the cubes of the other engineers. “Frère Jacques” was meant to be a Settle song — one that would capture a child’s attention and hold it for a few minutes. The tempo was stretched out to thirty-one beats per minute (by comparison, the average pop song is usually between 90 and 130 bpm), with an ambient hum underneath, and the song’s signature bells hit as muted electronic pulses ­rather than the familiar “ding, dang, dong.” On a new version of “Twinkle, Twinkle,” he slowed the song down so much that the notes sounded as if they were being played in the vacuum of space.

The music playing on his speakers was so minimal, so free of the cacophony of literal bells and whistles that dominates children’s toys and sleep aids, that it ­instantly lulled me into a more relaxed state. My heartbeat slowed, my ­breathing too, and as I sat there listening in Zukic’s cozy, dark cube of a studio, my eyelids felt dangerously heavy.

Fisher-Price’s innovation with sleep stages could be a great help to parents, but it’s too ­early to know its real-world implications, as the research it has done is preliminary, and the product has been in the market for too short a time. More research in the field is certainly needed, but if little is known academically about ­baby sleep, even less remains known about the calming ­effects of music on babies. One person at the forefront of this work is Sandra Trehub, a professor of psychology at the University of Toronto who, for the past two ­decades, has been studying the effects of maternal singing on babies. “­Mother’s singing is distinct from other singing, even by the same woman,” she says. “In tests, a mother cannot replicate the same sound and tone without the ­baby present or visible. It requires feedback.”

While people all over the world sing their babies to sleep, Trehub notes that it’s often done in combination with holding, rocking, and other activities. “The segregation for sleep in the West is the big difference,” she says, noting that the way we tend to put babies to sleep in cribs in their own rooms stems from a ­relatively modern notion that ­children should calm themselves. “Here, we are focused on training babies. We went from infant-­centred [sleep rituals] to parent-centred.” Parents’ sleep and their desire for a steady schedule are placed ahead of the baby’s biological and development needs. Sleep, or a lack thereof, is seen as one more problem we can fix with the right technology. This adult-centric focus has led to devices like the ones Fisher-Price sells, which promise to ­alleviate the “problem” of sleep at the push of a button.

Recently, Trehub has been working to break down exactly what components of maternal singing best soothe babies. One day in her lab, at the university’s Mississauga campus, I observed an experiment with Maryam Jilani, a remarkably calm seven-and-a-half-month-old girl, and her mother, Olga. Sitting across from each other in a soundproof booth, Olga and Maryam played, then Olga ignored ­Maryam until she cried; Olga then tried three different methods to soothe ­Maryam, as Trehub instructed. First, ­Olga sang a familiar song, then she spoke to her baby and touched her. And, finally, Olga sang Maryam a new song. Between each soothing method, Olga resumed playing with Maryam and then ignoring her, restarting the process. Trehub observed the session through a video feed and an arousal sensor strapped to Maryam’s leg, which measured her stress level via a device that monitored perspiration. Trehub was still early in her ­investigation; Maryam was one of forty to fifty babies she was watching, and the study is expected to take the better part of a year to complete. But, at least on that day, between Maryam and her mother, the familiar song was the most effective at soothing, bringing the baby’s stress levels down far more rapidly and consistently than speaking to her or singing an unfamiliar song.

Trehub hopes to eventually look at musical elements, like pitch and melody, to test their soothing capabilities. She is skeptical of Fisher-Price’s new strategy because she says it is symptomatic of the societal approach to sleep we have ­adopted, which begins with separating babies from what they want (a parent holding, rocking, and singing to them), then attempts to replicate that experience with technological solutions (let this swing hold, rock, and sing you to sleep).

Fisher-Price is eager for a big hit in a competitive marketplace. The sales of Mattel, Fisher-Price’s parent company, continued to slip in the second quarter of this year, ­including its infant products. Parents willing to shell out money for a few hours of sleep for their babies and, mostly, for themselves could boost the company’s fortunes at a tough time in the industry. “When you’re not getting sleep, you will try anything,” says ­Gubitosi. “But it’s a slippery slope...you’ve gotta ­deliver on the promise people hope for.” Last year, after revealing Aristotle, ­Mattel’s first smart device (a sort of Amazon Alexa for the nursery), the backlash from parents, pediatricians, and others was so swift, the product, which included a camera, never came to market (Mattel says it was due to a change in executive leadership). In the middle of the night, desperate parents may plead for anything to get their kids to sleep, but in the daylight, they remain reluctant to let a publicly traded company possibly harvest data from their child’s crib.

Still, many at the company excitedly talk about a future where tech-enabled nurseries can seamlessly monitor and encourage sleep and deliver music to soothe babies based on their individual preferences. An algorithmic playlist that responds to what’s happening in the crib, maybe. This is a tantalizing promise of control over a fundamentally uncontrollable situation.

As I interviewed Zukic in his cubed studio, we both yawned at the same time. His daughter had also been up at 4:30 that morning, despite the fifty-slide PowerPoint of sleep research his wife had compiled from books and the internet and all the sleep aids at his disposal. Each night with his daughter remained uncertain. “I mean, she won’t even sleep to the songs I write,” he says. “It’s my music! And we still can’t figure it out.”

David Sax
David Sax (@saxdavid) is the author of Analog: Real Things and Why They Matter. He writes for The New York Times and Bloomberg Businessweek.