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How Baby Gear Is Designed for Sleep — and Why It’s Working

A designer, a doctor, and a parent on how science is making baby sleep gear smarter and helping parents win the battle for shuteye.

The following was produced in partnership with our friends at Fisher-Price®, whose toys and baby gear enrich the lives of young families and bring joy to generations. 

Sleep — specifically, how to get a baby to do it in order to do it oneself — has confounded parents since pretty much forever. Now, there’s reason to hope that those millennia of sleeplessness are about to wind down to a drowsy end. Suddenly, thanks to new technologies and research, the fight for shuteye looks winnable. Some of the brightest minds in pediatrics, product design, and parenting are currently devoting extraordinary energy to figuring out how to help babies and parents rest easy. They’re gonna get it done.

Sleep leaders like Fisher-Price Senior Vice President of Design Mark Zeller, Pediatric Sleep Consultant Dr. Angelique Millette, and Big City Moms Executive Editor Lauren Jimeson all help design, create, and test products that exist solely to help kids, and, by extension, their parents, sleep better. Fatherly recently asked Zeller, Millette, and Jimeson about how they think about solving the sleep riddle and why things are about to get better.

What are the greatest sleep challenges facing parents today?  

Jimeson: My biggest challenge was how much lack of sleep affected me. Suddenly, I couldn’t sleep on my schedule. I was at the mercy of this person who had no schedule and didn’t want to sleep. It was physically and mentally exhausting. I remember calling my husband at work one day begging him to come home and hold our daughter. I said, “I can’t even get an hour of sleep, I just need an hour.”

Millette: The toughest thing for parents is being backed into corners. We want choices. We don’t need a perfect method, just the one that will work for us and our child.

“We don’t need a perfect method, just the one that will work for us and our child.”

How has our understanding of baby sleep changed over the years?

Millette: The variables contributing to the health impacts of sleep are more complex than we ever thought. Development of circadian rhythm — discerning day from night — can be guided by attentive caregivers who develop routines, often without realizing it. And new research into the connection between child development and sleep has found that patterns developed in the first six to 12 months inform sleep patterns into childhood and adulthood. Kids who don’t sleep well have greater likelihood of obesity, diabetes, depression, anxiety, ADHD, and cognitive impairments. So there’s real impetus for parents to set up good sleep routines in the first year.

Zeller: What’s changed most for us are expectations. Everything adults interact with is smarter and more customizable so the expectation is that baby products offer the same experience. Parents want to be able to activate and fine-tune everything — the type and volume of music, the motions of a swing — with a smart connected device from outside the nursery so as not to disrupt their child.

What popular sleep myths still persist?

Millette: There’s no single bit of research that suggests all babies sleep 12 hours from 7:00 p.m. to 7:00 a.m. Babies sleep between nine and 12 hours a night yet parents stick to a made up number. There’s also no research that shows a baby should sleep through the night at a certain weight. Six-month-olds will be feeding at night; that’s not a failure. Another one is, “If we sleep train we’ll never hear from them again at night.” The truth is regressions are normal and healthy. If a baby’s sleep regresses and they’re up at night and clingy, it’s likely a developmental stage and they might need holding, comfort, or feeding at night. That can last a few weeks if they’re going through other developments simultaneously. Sleep training can work but there’s no holy grail.

Jimeson: That the experts have all the answers. I read so many sleep books and it backfired because I ignored my daughter’s signs. She wasn’t doing what the books said, I wasn’t sleeping, and we were both miserable. Once I started listening to her cues I relaxed. I realized lots of these moments wouldn’t be lasting impressions, so if she wanted to sleep in the Fisher-Price® swing for a few hours, I did that. Around nine months, she started sleeping through the night. For our second and third kids it was, “Let’s do what’s best for them.”

How should parents decide on the best sleep training method?

Millette: In the first four to six months, kids develop circadian rhythms, resiliency, and self-soothing. Let them settle to sleep on their own. After that, look at your baby’s’ unique abilities, sleep patterns, self-soothing cues, temperament, and health (if they have reflux and are uncomfortable, it’s difficult to sleep — just like you). Double check with a pediatrician for a recommended start date based on your child’s unique needs. Then, decide what will fit with your own parenting style. And look at every child individually. We all compare, but try not to.

Jimeson: No one method works for everyone. Try different ones and tweak them to your comfort zone. For us, some of the messages around creating an environment that promotes sleep worked but not all. We still use blackout shades, especially during the summer, but our second kid liked the sound machine and the third didn’t. You have to see what’s best for you.

How do designers create products that fit all parenting styles and needs?

Zeller: We have to be comfortable as a company with what we recommend so we talk to experts to inform our understanding of current parenting issues and the latest science. Issues like gender, self-regulation, how the toddler brain works. We recently had an occupational therapist lead a fascinating talk with designers and marketers about executive function. So it’s research beyond simple observation that goes beyond design into engineering and marketing.

How much consideration is given to aesthetics?

Zeller: Plastic isn’t a dirty word — it makes products safe, durable, colorful. But how do you advance the touch and feel? How do you incorporate soft goods or coatings for a safer, softer feel? How do we address natural colors versus bold and bright? Lately, we’ve made primary colors secondary, replaced by oranges, greens, and purples. One designer suggested a high-end fashion aesthetic. I’d never make the leap from fashion to Fisher-Price® but we look for those connections. I try to take a scientific approach. We look at what’s going on in retail and on the runway, aggregate that, and see what we can create. It’s a constant dialogue.

What should parents consider when shopping for sleep gear?

Millette: A baby sleeps 12-18 hours out of 24 so a good crib and a firm, natural or organic mattress is a great investment. Look for products that aren’t just for sleeping but also for playtime and grow with the child. For parents who work and can’t be with the baby all day but want to be educated, smart monitors capture tons of data. They give parents a snapshot of the baby’s day, help them understand their baby’s sleep cycles, and allow them to follow up with a doctor to interpret the data.

How do we know the current approach to designing for sleep is working?

Zeller: We test at least 550 products a year through in-home testing, observation, and surveys of a diverse group of parents, kids, and families. We let children and parents really interact with items and do unexpected things and incorporate those experiences into our products. For example, one designer on our newborn team had problems with a colicky baby. We try to stay aware of how we’re making life easier for parents and how we can help parents make smarter choices.

What does the future of baby sleep look like?

Zeller: We have much smarter products coming, things that might be able to predict when babies will wake up and give more information about their sleep state that will help inform parents’ choices. We try to look 10 years ahead to determine what households will look like, what parents’ needs will be, and how we can infuse technology to make parenting easier.

Millette: We’ll continue to encourage parents to follow their intuition and carve out time to just be with their baby at the end of the day. Quiet the space, leave the stress, anxiety, projects, and deadlines at the door, and just be there with your child. A quality bedtime routine with low light, no noise, and no phones will help them start to learn to settle at the end of the day. The best sleep hygiene routine to teach kids is how to relax and slow down. And it’s good for parents too.