B.F. Skinner totally geeks out over the box he built for his baby

The Skinner Box, as applied to human infants, was not what you think it was. Psychologist B.F. Skinner did not raise his daughter inside a box without human contact. Nor did she later grow up to be crazy and commit suicide because of said lack of contact. In fact, just a few years ago, Deborah Skinner Buzan wrote a column for The Guardian debunking those powerful urban legends herself.

Instead, what Skinner did was build his daughter the sort of crib that you might expect a scientist raised in the era of mid-20th-century Popular Science-style scientific futurism and convenience to build. He called it the "Air-Crib" and it was designed to maintain a perfectly comfortable temperature, provide baby Deborah with built-in toys to keep her entertained, be simple to clean, and make it easier to stick to the "cry it out" and heavily regimented feeding/sleeping schedules that were, at the time, standard parenting advice.

Also, Deborah Skinner wasn't the only baby to use one. In 1959, almost 15 years after he originally wrote about the Air-Crib in Ladies Home Journal, Skinner reported having heard from at least 73 couples who'd raised 130 babies using the same design. (In fact, you can find pictures of modern happy babies hanging out in their Air-Cribs on Flickr.)

I got to read some of Skinner's original writing on the Air-Crib recently and couple of things stuck out to me. First, it cracked me up. The article, published in 1959 in Cumulative Record, is written in the kind of extra-enthusiastic voice you're used to hearing Makers use to describe particularly exciting DIY projects. Which is pretty hilarious in context with the myths that sprung up about the thing later. Second, when it comes to reducing the risk of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome, the Air-Crib was (unintentionally) ahead of its time.

Here's how Skinner described the original development of the box, back in 1945.

When we decided to have another child, my wife and I felt that it was time to apply a little labor-saving intervention to the problems of the nursery. We began by going over the disheartening schedule of the young mother, step by step. We asked only one question: Is this practice important for the physical and psychological health of the baby? When it was not, we marked it for elimination. Then the "gadgeteering" began.

The result was an inexpensive apparatus in which our baby daughter has now been living for eleven months. Her remarkable good health and happiness and my wife's welcome leisure have exceeded our most optimistic predictions, and we are convinced that a new deal for both mother and baby is at hand.

Later, in 1959, Skinner would write that the advantages of the Air-Crib were so great that he was certain they could not be resisted much longer, despite the forces of cultural inertia and complicated building instructions.

I could almost see him and his wife grinning obliviously at their vaguely disturbed neighbors as they tried to explain, "But it's so efficient!"

One of the key features of the Air-Crib was also the thing that makes it look a little sketchy. The Skinners were dedicated to providing a comfortable, climate-controlled environment in which their baby could play and hang out in just her diaper. In order to do that, the crib had to also be a sealed environment, where the baby interacted with the outside world through windows on the side. Baby Deborah was taken out of the box regularly — to be fed, and changed, and played with — and Skinner is probably right in pointing out that there is, technically, nothing particularly different about leaving your baby for long periods in a crib compared to leaving them for long periods in an Air-Crib. But it does come across as a bit more problematic.

What stood out to me, though, was the fact that this temperature control system allowed Baby Deborah to sleep in ways that are much, much closer to the recommendations that new parents hear today. In order to reduce the risk of SIDS and suffocation, you're now told to put your baby to sleep in a space that looks pretty barren. No blankies. No crib bumpers. No stuffed animals or layers of sleep clothes. Ideally, you just want a mattress with a sheet on it and a baby that's wearing as little as possible. (Finland has one of the lowest infant mortality rates in the world, which is partially attributed to the fact that their babies sleep, quite literally, in boxes.)

That has not been the norm, historically. It certainly wasn't the norm that Skinner describes raising his first child with — "the usual solution [to cold] is to wrap the baby in a half-a-dozen layers of cloth," he writes. Instead, at 11 months, Deborah Skinner enjoyed a bed that was set around 78 degrees with a relative humidity of 50 percent. The Skinners weren't thinking of reducing SIDS risk. It's pretty clear from his writing that the primary motivations were: First, reduce the number of things that had to be regularly laundered and, second, make the baby comfortable enough that it cried less often and didn't need to use so much energy regulating its own body temperature. But the result was a relatively spartan crib environment that would not have looked out-of-place with today's SIDS-prevention guidelines.

Some other highlights of the Air-Crib that Skinner extolled in his articles: Sheets arranged on an "endless" loop system, similar to the roller towel unit in a gas station bathroom, which allowed his wife to "change" the sheets several times before she actually had to wash the sheets; insulated walls that helped maintain the temperature and also protected the sanctity of naptime; and a modified music box that the baby could play by pulling rings suspended from the Air-Crib's roof. (Frankly, I'm surprised that I've not seen a modern version of that last one in a post here before.)

There were, of course, objections. But Skinner assures the reader that they can all be easily shot down. In particular, he had some criticism for the folks who thought this all seemed just a wee bit, you know, unnatural.

It is not, of course, the favorable conditions to which people object, but the fact that in our compartment they are "artificial." All of them occur naturally in one favorable environment or another, where the same objection should apply but is never raised. It is quite in the spirit of the "world of the future" to make favorable conditions available everywhere through simple mechanical means.

[Insert Jetsons sound effects here.]

Image: Detail from October 1945 issue of Ladies Home Journal.

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  1. What I don't understand is the vitriol about Skinner being wrong on some things. I mean, it's not like Chomsky hasn't had his share of theories that haven't panned out as well as he might of hoped. Being wrong is part of being a scientist.

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