The babies in the Snoo's 2019 ads weren't nearly happy enough.
The tots had been photographed fast asleep, strapped into the $1,700 high-tech bassinets, soothed by the devices' automatic rocking and white-noise machine. But Nina Montée Karp, a cofounder of Happiest Baby, the company behind the Snoo, wanted them to smile, two former employees said.
Montée Karp hovered over the shoulder of an employee on the marketing team, watching while she digitally adjusted the corners of the babies' mouths upward and added a vibrant pink flush to their cheeks. When underlings questioned the ethics of altering photos of infants, Montée Karp replied that "everyone wants to see smiling babies," the marketing employee recalled.
Some Happiest Baby employees say it was just one of many absurd demands that they regularly faced from Montée Karp and her husband and cofounder, Dr. Harvey Karp.
"It's very endearing when you first meet" Karp and Montée Karp, the marketing employee said. "You're very charmed by them. And then you realize — they've pulled the wool over your eyes."
Karp and Montée Karp launched the Snoo in 2016 and have since been hailed as visionaries — the saviors of sleep. The Snoo, a mid-century chic bassinet whose cream-colored siding and hairpin metal legs would look perfectly at home in an Apple store, is credited not only with helping infants to sleep better, but also with preventing sudden unexpected infant deaths, a category that claims the lives of an estimated 3,400 babies in the US each year. It has won over everyone from Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida, who recommended the Snoo in 2020 after having his third child, to Vogue, which called it a "mechanical Mary Poppins." In December, the Financial Times reported that Happiest Baby's annual revenue was close to $100 million.
But while the media has fawned over the Snoo's creators, one current and more than a dozen former Happiest Baby employees described the company as far stranger and more poorly run than the glowing profiles would suggest. (Most asked to remain anonymous to speak freely without fear of repercussions, but their identities are known to Insider.) Employees said the founders were micromanaging bosses who created a gossip-fueled "surveillance state" where Montée Karp had "spies," including the office cleaner, monitor staffers' phone use and hours. At the same time, employees who joined Happiest Baby because of its heavily hyped mission to save all babies found themselves at a celebrity-obsessed company that tracked A-listers' pregnancies, delivering free Snoos to people like Gigi Hadid and Elon Musk.
"I had foster parents sobbing on the phone to me, asking me: 'Please, please, please, can't you just send me a new power cord? My baby won't sleep,'" a former customer-service staffer said. "And I'm being told no — but we're going to ship the Hadids" a Snoo free of charge.
Morale sank lower in 2022, as layoffs and slumping sales hit Happiest Baby. Last summer, the company planned to announce that the Snoo had been FDA-certified to prevent SIDS, a type of sudden unexpected infant death, but months later it still hasn't received that stamp of approval from the Food and Drug Administration. In mid-January this year, a former employee filed a class-action lawsuit alleging Happiest Baby broke California labor laws by requiring employees to work off the clock and by withholding breaks. While many former employees still recommend the Snoo, several who spoke with Insider say the company is struggling to retain talent.
A Happiest Baby representative said employees' concerns about management were "factually incorrect."
"We greatly respect the rights of our employees and carefully follow all applicable laws and regulations," the representative said in a statement, sending along dozens of glowing testimonials that gushed about the founders' leadership. Happiest Baby said the testimonials were from current and former employees, though all names were redacted and Happiest Baby declined to connect Insider with any employees willing to speak on the record.
A current employee, who says she wrote one such testimonial, reached out to Insider after doing so.
She said that despite writing that she loved working at Happiest Baby, in reality employees were "constantly micromanaged" and Montée Karp had asked her to collect information about coworkers on more than one occasion.
She wrote the letter, she said, because Montée Karp asked her to, personally dictating what points to make, including praise for upper management. (Happiest Baby said "no employee was required or pressured" to write a testimonial.) The employee feared she would lose her job — or find herself under surveillance — if she refused.
"It is Big Brother," she said.
Karp and Montée Karp founded Happiest Baby years before they sold their first Snoo, at about the time Karp published his 2002 best-seller, "The Happiest Baby on the Block." In the book, Karp, a slight, bearded former pediatrician to the stars, offered medically backed techniques to soothe babies to sleep, such as swaddling and shushing. "Happiest Baby on the Block" turned Karp into the best-known sleep-whisperer in the US, with fans like Michelle Pfeiffer and Larry David — whose children Karp had treated — providing adoring blurbs. Karp and Montée Karp built the hype into a parenting-media empire that put out three books and two instructional films in 10 years.
Karp and Montée Karp met at a Hollywood party in the early '90s. Montée Karp had immigrated to Southern California from Belgrade, Serbia (her uncle, Milan Pani?, once served as the prime minister of Yugoslavia). The petite brunette was a single mother working as a dermatologist's clinical assistant. Karp was running his own pediatrics clinic. When Karp told his future wife he cared for the party hosts' child, Montée Karp assumed the "ponytailed, hippy-ish guy" was the nanny, she told The New York Times. Both were divorced; Montée Karp had a young daughter, Lexi, from her first marriage. The two were married in 1997.
According to company lore, inspiration struck Karp after he gave a 2008 lecture on SIDS. He sketched out a bassinet that would keep babies on their backs — the position recommended by the American Academy of Pediatrics — and that incorporated the sleep techniques from his book. MIT Media Lab's Deb Roy was enlisted to build a prototype, and Fuseproject's Yves Béhar to design it. Happiest Baby raised $2.5 million by 2014 from "friends and family," then another $10 million in Series A funding in 2015.
By October 2016, the Snoo was born.
The bassinet hit the market when the baby business was on the up and up. In 2021, sales of baby and child products reached an estimated $3.5 billion in the US, according to the market-research firm Euromonitor — up 15% from 2016. The windfall isn't surprising given how much is on the line in those early days of life, especially when it comes to rest. Parents sleep only when their babies do, and sleep-deprived parents are at risk of anxiety, depression, and even hallucinations.
Some silver bullets, like Baby Matters' infant recliner Nap Nanny and Fisher-Price's Rock 'n Play sleepers, gained cult status only to be pulled from the market after babies died in the devices. But the Snoo promised something more "revolutionary." Sensors in the Snoo react to babies' cries, automatically adjusting rocking and white-noise levels to create a womb-like environment. Happiest Baby says the Snoo adds an extra hour or two of sleep every night.
The high-tech bassinet has become the ultimate status symbol for new parents. Dozens of companies, including JPMorgan and Snapchat, now offer employees free Snoo rentals. Serena Williams has one. Beyoncé and Jay Z are said to own a whopping eight. Happiest Baby raised $79 million over four rounds of funding with investors including Jessica Biel, Gwyneth Paltrow, and Scarlett Johansson. The bassinet racked up accolades, including best safety among baby tech products at the Consumer Electronics Show in 2017 and gold for baby-product design in the 2017 International Design Awards. It was even displayed at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and London's Design Museum, where it was heralded as the "world's safest baby bed."
As the company grew, it hired more than a hundred employees across its Los Angeles headquarters and its office in Belgrade. Karp proselytized the Snoo's lifesaving potential in a New York Times profile, comparing his creation to the invention of penicillin.
"New-parent exhaustion is a national emergency," Karp said when the Snoo debuted. "Sleep deprivation triggers marital stress, postpartum depression, abuse, obesity, accidents, and infant sleep deaths."
"That's why I felt so dedicated to developing this new way to help babies — and tired parents — sleep better," he added.
Working at Happiest Baby promised the adult version of a warm bottle. There was the noble mission. There was Karp, who expertly mixed authority with a paternal bedside manner. The gregarious Montée Karp tried to personally welcome each new Happiest Baby employee, and company perks included daily catered lunches and free on-site yoga classes.
The former marketing employee recalled thinking, "Oh, my God, this is my dream job," upon being hired to join the Los Angeles headquarters. Karp and Montée Karp promised her independence and flexibility to accommodate her two young children's day-care schedules and a 90-minute commute.
For a few weeks, it was amazing. But "once that honeymoon period has expired," she said, "it basically all comes crumbling down."
While the founders' charm helped lure new hires, their apparent obsession with control made working at Happiest Baby untenable for some. Karp and Montée Karp insisted on being involved in minutiae that most top executives hand off. Karp would personally log on to Happiest Baby's Facebook account to read and critique customer-service staffers' messages, according to people who worked at the company as recently as 2021. The founders decided the packaging's font size and, as of 2019, Karp edited every post on the Happiest Baby blog — articles like "25 Old-Fashioned Baby Names That Feel Totally Fresh Again" — down to the punctuation.
Karp travels frequently and works constantly, with former employees recalling Montée Karp bragging about her husband working until 2 a.m. and waking up at 6 a.m. Despite his busy schedule, Karp refuses to delegate, they said, resulting in constant bottlenecks.
A former employee said she would wait up to two months for Karp to return edits on blog posts, despite his changes often amounting to nothing more than a handful of grammatical tweaks. The current employee said projects could be held up for weeks awaiting Karp's approval. His sign-off is needed for all invoices, meaning that if a "vendor is begging for a $5 invoice to be paid, it won't be paid until Harvey is OK to pay it," she said. (A company representative denied bottlenecks, saying "the cofounders are focused on assuring the highest quality, not micromanaging.")
Every day was just filled with anxiety and dread.
A common theme in Insider's interviews with current and former employees was "Big Brother." Multiple employees said Montée Karp used "spies" to collect information. The current employee said Montée Karp asked her to keep track of when colleagues left their desks or used their cellphones. Even the office cleaner — who also cleaned the Karps' home — would collect intel, one current and four former employees said, telling Montée Karp who was friendly or even, one said, when someone used the bathroom. One former employee said that if staffers wanted to go for a walk together, they would leave separately and meet around the corner to keep Montée Karp from seeing them.
The former marketing employee said that a few months into the job, around 2019, Montée Karp presented her with a list. Someone had been marking when she left and returned to the office for lunch, down to the minute. Montée Karp told her the roughly 15-minute breaks constituted her "stealing time" from the company. Soon after, the marketing employee said, she was summoned by Karp and Montée Karp and presented with a log of the exact minutes she arrived at and left work, despite earlier promises of flexibility. A coworker told Insider she heard about these incidents at the time, calling Happiest Baby a "fucking terrible place to work."
"Every day was just filled with anxiety and dread," the marketing employee said.
Some burned-out employees apparently took to Glassdoor, where negative reviews proliferated, including one recommending staffers take screenshots of everything they do. In 2020, when Montée Karp caught wind of the negative comments, she began asking employees to write positive Glassdoor reviews, according to four current and former staffers. ("We encourage employees to leave honest reviews, at their own discretion, about their work experiences on sites like Glassdoor," the Happiest Baby representative said.)
"The culture is coming from the management," a former employee who joined the sourcing team in 2018 told Insider. "And if that culture is rotten, then you cannot build on top of it, no matter how good a product you have."
At its core, Happiest Baby is a family business. Karp is CEO, and Montée Karp — whose prior professions include makeup artist, dermatologist's assistant, spa owner, and filmmaker — is president. Their daughter, Lexi Montée Busch, is head of public relations and marketing.
Karp and Montée Karp run the business in lockstep, with former employees saying they copied each other on nearly every email and harmonized while singing "Happy Birthday" at company parties. While a former high-ranking employee described Montée Karp as "chaos in a bottle," some said Karp's leadership skills were also lacking.
"He comes off very, very soft-spoken and kind, but behind closed doors he's not," the marketing employee said. "He just uses Nina as his bulldog."
Publicly, Happiest Baby is thriving under Karp and Montée Karp. But 12 former employees and one current staffer said that behind-the-scenes there were internal concerns regarding a lack of checks and balances or proper support for employees.
Customer-care employees called "sleep consultants" or "sleep specialists" were expected to provide what one former employee called "medically adjacent advice" to parents. While employees were instructed to tell customers to contact a professional if asked about explicitly medical issues, two former staffers felt they were unprepared to advise on the level of a "specialist," as advertised.
"The truth was we were just young people from 20 to 30 who'd received a couple weeks of training based on Dr. Karp's books," the ex-employee said. (A Happiest Baby representative said customer-care staffers were told to "inform customers to immediately contact their health providers if they have a question regarding any medical condition, and undergo months of rigorous training and close supervision.")
The former customer-service staffer recalled being told to recommend "Dr. Karp's rice and towel tip," which was published in a since-deleted post on Happiest Baby's website. In the post, parents were instructed to place a 1-pound sack of rice on the baby's chest and upper stomach.
"There are a million things that can go wrong," the former customer-service staffer said, noting that she luckily never had a dangerous incident occur. "If one of your colleagues says, 'Oh, yeah, put a 4-pound bag of rice instead of a 1-pound bag of rice on a baby that's 7 pounds' — that could kill them."
In mid-2022, the American Academy of Pediatrics updated its guidelines, recommending against placing weighted sleep sacks or any other weighted item on or near a sleeping infant. A Happiest Baby representative said the company had never received a report of a child who was injured by the techniques recommended by the company.
Montée Karp in particular alienated some employees as she floated through the office, $12 Erewhon green juice in hand. A number of former employees said Montée Karp's role felt nebulous, spanning everything from product design to planning company parties. Three former employees said she derailed meetings to spout corporate word salad or name-drop a famous friend. One former employee joked that Montée Karp's every other sentence began with, "My friend Arianna — oh, Huffington." (Montée Karp's network has only grown since founding Happiest Baby; she recently posted an Instagram photo of her and Karp attending Vice President Kamala Harris' 2022 holiday party.)
Former and current employees called Montée Karp a human-resources nightmare. Montée Karp would sometimes comment on employees' appearance and nationalities, according to one current and four former employees. One employee who left in 2021 said the cofounder once told her that Serbians were "smarter than people from other countries." (Happiest Baby said Montée Karp never said this.) Two said she once asked to touch a Black employee's hair. (Happiest Baby denied this incident.) Another time, two people recalled Montée Karp saying it wasn't professional to wear braids in the office, a comment that made at least one Black employee uncomfortable, according to the current employee. (Happiest Baby denied this.) With Montée Karp leading the company's HR department, among her other duties, current and former employees said they felt they had nowhere to turn with concerns.
Former employees said there were some smart, capable people at Happiest Baby. But many said they left because of the founders' behavior, with several noting the company's turnover rate has been high for years.
The founders' key limitation, a former high-ranking employee said, was their refusal to hire or trust outside experts to help them more efficiently run the company. "That's the simple problem," the former employee said, "and that's the problem founders have everywhere — especially in tech."
Despite describing Happiest Baby as the worst place they'd ever worked, many people stood by the Snoo. "I wouldn't wish it upon my worst enemy to work there," another former customer-care staffer said, but would still "buy the product."
Certainly, many customers who bought the Snoo see it as a lifesaver. Chelsea Crawford, a 37-year-old mother of three, told Insider the Snoo was a "godsend" when her second child struggled to sleep. "The Snoo, really, for me — it was peace of mind," Crawford said.
Despite the glowing testimonials, the question of whether the Snoo actually saves babies' lives remains unanswered.
Karp has said his goal was to "reduce sudden infant death syndrome by 90%" — a figure that, when pressed by The Economist in December, he clarified was actually a "hope." Happiest Baby's own study found only that the Snoo reduced self-reported behaviors linked to SIDS, like babies co-sleeping or not sleeping on their backs, as opposed to reducing SIDS-related deaths.
Karp has spent years pushing for the FDA to certify that the Snoo prevents SIDS. In October 2020, Happiest Baby announced that it had been "accepted" into the FDA's Breakthrough Devices Program, intended to fast-track approval for inventions that might be lifesaving. Karp hyped the announcement, tweeting in October 2021: "We're grateful SNOO is the first bed FDA has called a BREAKTHROUGH that might reduce SIDS!"
But experts note that since the Breakthrough Devices Program began in 2015, 728 devices have been granted the designation; only 56 have received FDA clearance. That means 92% of "breakthrough devices" — including the Snoo — are stuck in the pipeline. According to Bradley Merrill Thompson, a lawyer who specializes in FDA issues, any device that's been under review for over two years has hit significant roadblocks.
"If you apply to go to Harvard, that doesn't mean that you are a Harvard student," added Dr. Rachel Moon, a professor of pediatrics and a SIDS researcher at the University of Virginia. Moon said proving that the Snoo prevents SIDS would require a randomized study of millions of infants.
This past summer, Happiest Baby sent out an embargoed press release — since viewed by Insider — to select journalists announcing that the FDA was going to name the Snoo "the first medical device proven to reduce SIDS." But the FDA approval never came, and the stories never ran. Public records show the FDA hasn't approved the Snoo as a medical device, and the FDA told Insider it couldn't discuss applicants, including whether they're still involved in the program.
While a handful of studies seem to indicate that the Snoo can encourage infants to sleep longer, some experts remain skeptical of the device. Moon said infants need to wake up every two to three hours to feed, so "having them sleep longer may not be advantageous." And both Violet Giannone, a child sleep consultant, and Wendy Hall, a professor who studies children's sleep, expressed concern that the Snoo's "straitjacket" design might prevent infants from learning how to roll over and developing muscles to do so.
"Babies get accustomed to that rocking, that swaying, that movement, and have a horrible time when they come out of it," Giannone said. "I've received an influx of clients that are trying to figure out how to now stop using the Snoo."
Dr. Harry L. Gewanter, a clinical associate professor at Children's Hospital of Richmond at VCU who is Happiest Baby's medical-science liaison, pushed back against critics, saying infants do not need to eat every three hours, additionally noting that babies can learn to roll over during the day and adding that most don't have issues adjusting to sleeping post-Snoo. "Everything in life is a question of benefits and risks," Gewanter wrote in a statement to Insider.
But even fans are finding that the Snoo isn't a one-size-fits-all solution. Crawford, the mother who called the Snoo a godsend for her second child, said it simply didn't work for her third baby, who hated the swaying. "We've had to turn the motion off and just kind of have her in it as a standard bassinet," Crawford said.
Some worry that Karp's description of the Snoo's abilities may be problematic. Specifically, that Karp regularly refers to the Snoo as an extra set of hands, with a recent company LinkedIn post calling it "a 24/7 caregiver that never takes days off." Giannone called such marketing a "very dangerous message to spread," as it implies parents don't have to check on their children.
The former customer-service staffer said that, twice, customers told her they had secured their baby in the Snoo and then left the house. Happiest Baby's user guide explicitly says the Snoo isn't a replacement for adult supervision. But the ex-employee felt that because "it's being marketed as though you could, in theory," leave your child unattended, calling the device a caregiver fell into a dangerous "gray area."
Since the Snoo debuted, Karp and Montée Karp have been engaged in a delicate balancing act: portraying the Snoo as a potentially lifesaving, must-buy device, while also marketing it as a luxury product beloved by celebrities. The company even assigns specific customer-service staffers to meet A-listers' every need.
If Karp and Montée Karp "really want to save 3,500 babies a year that died from SIDS" and other sleep-related deaths, Moon said, "the vast majority of them are socioeconomically not going to be able to afford the Snoo." (Happiest Baby notes that it has donated $1 million worth of Snoos to hospitals and opiate-withdrawal clinics.)
Across the board, experts — including Moon, who coauthored the American Academy of Pediatrics' most recent recommendations on reducing SIDS — said parents didn't need to spend $1,700 to reduce SIDS risk. Shayna Raphael, who started a foundation dedicated to safe sleep after the death of her 10-month-old, told Insider that Happiest Baby shouldn't put parents in the position where they feel that "If I don't provide this for my child, then they might die."
Happiest Baby's balancing act is getting more difficult to maintain. Sales slowed in 2022, according to four people who worked there in the past year. In mid-2021, the company projected 2022 revenue to exceed $150 million, according to The Wall Street Journal; the Financial Times reported in December that annual revenue was just under $100 million.
In an economic downturn, it's harder to persuade people to pay close to $2,000 for the Snoo. And with more Snoos out in the world, parents increasingly pass along their used devices to friends at a discount or free. The company has attempted to address resales (and allegations of elitism) via its $159-a-month rental program. It has also debuted new products — $150 loungewear, a $90 mobile, an $800 crib named after Lexi Montée Busch's daughter — but none are anywhere close to as popular as the Snoo, four employees who worked at the company within the past year said.
In November, Happiest Baby laid off engineers in Los Angeles and others tasked with creating the next-generation Snoo, with cuts in the double-digits, according to former employees. Employees said the company had spent millions of dollars developing the bigger, better Snoo — known internally as the Snoo+ — since about 2018. For years, leadership hyped the Snoo+ as the future of the business, even as its rollout was continuously delayed. The project is now thought to be dead — or, at the very least, stuck in purgatory for the foreseeable future.
Happiest Baby's employment practices are also under scrutiny. In mid-January, Camelle Johnson — who worked at Happiest Baby as a customer-service staffer for three months in 2021 — filed a class-action lawsuit alleging the company violated California labor laws.
The complaint says hourly employees were forced to work "off-the-clock" and through lunch, without proper breaks. Johnson said she was required or pressured to "perform work tasks which could not be completed" unless she skipped her meal breaks, something another former customer-service staffer told Insider was common. (Happiest Baby denied the allegations.) The customer-service employee additionally showed Insider an email mandating that employees eat lunch as early as 10:45 a.m. in an attempt to lower the company's missed-call rate.
Happiest Baby loyalists — and even some critics — still believe the company can overcome these obstacles. Karp and Montée Karp turned the Snoo into an award-winning holy grail of parenthood in just a few years. As one employee who quit last year said, "Dr. Karp is the secret sauce." If Happiest Baby manages to get FDA approval, it will be heralded as a groundbreaking innovation — and open the door for insurance companies to start covering the costs.
Other former employees say there is no way for Happiest Baby to truly succeed with Karp or Montée Karp at the helm. The former customer-service staffer says that without some massive changes, "there's no doubt in my mind that this company is going to fail."
"The Snoo is such a genius product," a former employee said, but "just because you have a great idea doesn't mean you should be a CEO."