Making life better and easier sometimes requires looking at things you accept as perfectly ordinary parts of life and considering them from a completely different perspective. This post is about one of those things — the baby crib you may have slept in when you were little, and the one you may be considering using for your own child.
When you put aside everything you already know, or assume, about them, it’s not hard to recognize that traditional baby cribs are kind of a pain. They’re not easy to get a baby into or out of, they demand abominable amounts of linen, and they require the baby to sleep behind bars. For parents who use wheelchairs, cribs are doubly cursed — wrestling a baby in and out of bed is twice as tough, and who needs to be hauling around all that extra laundry, anyway?
So this post is about a different alternative. Back in 1945, B.F. Skinner and his wife, fed up with the considerable amount of labor involved in raising a child in a conventional crib, came up with the idea for an “air crib” which a baby could sleep in sans clothing (except a diaper) and all that bedding.
The idea wasn’t only to save labor, but also to let the baby move in a temperature and humidity controlled environment without being restricted by layers of clothes. The Skinners’ second daughter, Deborah, was the first beneficiary of this enlightened thinking — and yes, she turned out just fine, thank you very much.
My grandparents were professors at Harvard with B.F. Skinner and thought that his Baby Box — as it was later popularly dubbed — was a good idea. We had two in our family — the first two kids were only 14 months apart — and the amount of drudgery saved under those circumstances was considerable, as you can imagine.
Our boxes, like the Skinners’, were built so that the ‘bed’ portions were about waist level on a parent. Getting a baby in and out of the air crib didn’t involve any bending or stooping. We were almost eyeball-to-eyeball with whoever was greeting us in the morning or after a nap, allowing for lots of immediate interaction. That’s fantastic for babies and parents, whether or not there’s a wheelchair in the picture.
Naturally, I had a Baby Box for my own daughter. If I hadn’t already been sold on it, seeing her dance around the box when she woke up, and the enormous pleasure she took in luxuriating in the comfort of her clothes-less environment certainly would have done the trick. But there was so much more: No PJs to wash! No undershirts! No sheets, or bumper pads, or quilts or blankets! Just swish the mesh mattress under the faucet and let it dry — it took about ten minutes — in the bathtub.
All the time I didn’t spend on laundry, I got to spend with the kid. When she woke in the middle of the night, she was absolutely comfortable bouncing around like mad before flopping down for more sleep until morning — part of her lean good health, and her great sleep habits, were due, I think, to not having to fight nightclothes if she wanted to turn over or move around.
Because the box is essentially a baby-sized room, it can be put, or built, just about anywhere. If it’s more convenient to have it in a family room, instead of a bedroom, that works fine. I worked and sewed and did bunches of stuff right in the room with my sleeping baby, next to her Skinner box, all through her baby- and toddler-hood. When the curtain was pulled across the front, it was sleepy time for her. We lived in an extremely small farmhouse then, and it was wonderful that the baby didn’t have to have a whole house-sized room to herself.
My daughter loved her air crib — can you tell? These pictures are more than 20 years old; my baby graduated from an excellent liberal arts college last May and is out in the world and on her own now — her current ‘box’ is a New York apartment.
If you want one of these things, you have to build it yourself, or have one built — and therein lies the beauty of it. Want to slip a wheelchair underneath the box, or right up to the edge of the mattress? Easy pie. (Unlike Skinner’s original model, ours were on legs, open at the bottom; my daughter’s had a cabinet beneath.) In my next air crib post, I’ll describe how my babyhood box, and my daughter’s, were made.
Black and white photo of Deborah Skinner, Ladies’ Home Journal, “Baby in a Box”, October 1945.