“Welcome to your new life!” my friend Allison texted me. I had just procured a Baby Merlin’s Magic Sleep Suit — a puffy little straitjacket for babies between three and six months old. Allison was a committed disciple; the first time she had used it, her four-month-old daughter had slept 13 hours straight.
The suit cost $40; I would have paid $4,000. My 3 1/2-month-old daughter (and second kid) had recently begun busting out of her swaddle blankets, waking up every 90 minutes or so at night. This was precisely the problem the Merlin offered to solve, by mimicking the snug feeling of a swaddle with more freedom of movement. So that night, I was borderline giddy as I zipped her into the canary yellow suit, snapped the obligatory Instagram photo, and settled in for some much-needed REMs.
Twelve hours later, I was pacing around the house, guzzling a giant Dr. Pepper and blasting “Janet Jackson’s Rhythm Nation 1814” to keep myself awake. The baby, red and sweaty from screaming, was glued to my chest. She hated the Merlin. It made her so mad that she didn’t eat all morning, prompting a panicked visit to pediatric urgent care. She was fine. I was sent home with a Xeroxed fact sheet titled — to add insult to injury — “Why Your Baby Cries.” I slogged through the rest of the day, feeling like I had failed.
Actually, I was far from alone. Baby sleep might be the thorniest new-parenting problem there is. That’s why there’s a robust selection of literature devoted to the topic, not to mention consultancies, online and in-person classes for parents, and, of course, products that offer potential solutions.
When they do work for people, ferocious word-of-mouth and feverish testimonials take hold within tightly-knit (and wound) networks of anxious parents, online and otherwise. In the case of the Sleep Suit, it wasn’t just Allison’s endorsement. My group of mom friends had enthusiastically passed them around for years. I’d read glowing recommendations from a litany of baby registry blogs and “smart” media outlets: The New York Times, Strategist, you name it.
Yet it wasn’t the cure for my sleepless nights. It was, however, an example of a sophisticated, multifaceted new breed of marketing — one that combines and blurs the lines between the corporate and the personal, and had helped propel the Magic Sleep Suit on a perfectly-timed path to becoming a can’t-miss baby product.
If you haven’t had a baby in the last decade, you probably haven’t heard of Baby Merlin’s Magic Sleep Suit. But among a certain socioeconomic cohort of parents (those with $40 to blow on something they’ll use for a couple months), it’s ubiquitous enough that people often identify it in shorthand. My online parenting and swap groups host frequent posts looking to borrow, buy, or get rid of “a Merlin.” Since its launch in 2008, the Baby Merlin Company says, it has sold close to a million of them, and the secondary market is robust. “We have one going around my mom’s group,” says Daniele Mathras, a marketing professor at Northeastern University with two young children.
The Merlin is a staple offering at boutique baby stores. Target began selling it last year. The ranks of parents who sing its praises include actress Hilary Duff, New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees, and Kim West — no, not Kim Kardashian West, but a bestselling author known as “The Sleep Lady.”
The recommendations and the sheen of medical legitimacy made the Merlin seem like a sure thing, at least in my sleep-addled brain.
Still, when I emailed the Baby Merlin Company for this story, Maureen Howard, the sleep suit’s creator, replied to me directly. Her operation in a Philadelphia suburb has just seven full-time employees — a slight upgrade from the company’s early years, when she fulfilled orders out of her basement.
Howard, a former pediatric physical therapist, made her first sleep suit in 2002 when she was having trouble getting her infant son to sleep. He’d grown big enough to break out of his swaddle blankets, which restrict newborns’ movements and mimic the snug, warm feeling of the womb. She modeled a sleep-suit prototype in part on weighted vests worn by children with sensory processing issues, and she incorporated various positioning tricks she’d used to calm babies in neonatal intensive care units. It worked so well that she used it for her next three children; her husband sensed a business opportunity.
“There were a lot of swaddle products,” Howard says, “and there were a lot of sleep sacks, but there was nothing for that developmental window when babies are ready to be out of the swaddle.”
A few factors helped the Merlin become a rare small-business success story in the baby products market, which is more often dominated by big, multifaceted brands like Fisher Price, Munchkin, and Graco. Facebook, just taking off in 2008, became a major conduit for parents to share tips and swap gear. A thriving cottage industry of mommy bloggers, and later parenting Instagram personalities, helped too. Kelly Burton, Baby Merlin’s director of sales and marketing, says the company has grown in step with the reach of some of its early cheerleaders — like TakingCaraBabies, the popular baby sleep consultancy and Instagram account of Cara Dumaplin, which has 850,000 followers.
As sharing photos became a form of social currency, it didn’t hurt that the Merlin is hilarious-looking. Even if you don’t get a good night’s sleep, you do get a photo of your baby looking like the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man, or a tiny astronaut.
Baby Merlin doesn’t pay influencers for posts, but will send sleep suits as gifts in the hopes that recipients share it with their fan bases. Burton says they see periodic sales spikes from celebrity endorsements — most recently, from a growing parent community of former Bachelor and Bachelorette contestants.
“I’m not saying that celebrities’ use defines the success of your product,” Howard says. “But unfortunately, in today’s society, it helps a lot.”
Another thing has helped: positioning the Merlin as a safety solution. Safe sleep is an area as fraught as any part of raising small babies, because techniques and products that help babies (and exhausted parents) stay asleep and those that are 100% safe for them are often at odds. For example, many babies nap well in the cozy confines of a car seat or baby swing, but safe sleep guidelines call for a bare, flat crib. When Fisher Price recalled its popular Rock ’n Play bassinet last year, it was a disheartening story not only because the product — a slightly pitched, padded rocking cradle — proved to be a suffocation hazard, but because millions of parents swore by it.
To sidestep this apparent conundrum — the belief that any sleep product that seems too good to be true must not be safe — Baby Merlin includes the American Academy of Pediatrics’ safe sleep guidelines as a big part of its messaging and partners with SIDS-prevention organizations like First Candle. “We talk to these moms that are in the trenches, that are exhausted and sleep-deprived, and they get desperate and do things they shouldn’t, like co-sleeping,” says Howard. “This is a product that can get the baby in the crib by themselves, on their back, as they should be.”
All of this — the personal and media recommendations, combined with the sheen of medical legitimacy — had made the Merlin seem like a sure thing, at least in my sleep-addled brain.
That aura of certainty, though, was a product of effective social-media-age messaging, which marries our intimate-seeming relationships with public figures to the internet’s broad reach.
Mathras, the Northeastern professor, has done research showing that a paparazzi photo of a famous person holding a product drives more sales than a traditional advertisement. She says influencers with small but devoted followings can be even more potent. “You know about their life; you know about their kids, their profession, their ups and downs,” Mathras says. “So when they tell you about a product that they’re really into, you listen, because you’re like, ‘I know these people’ — even though you don’t, and they’re doing it as marketers.”
Recommendations from friends are similarly powerful, she adds. Amid the uncertainty of new parenthood, they can make even niche products feel like requirements. Mathras mentions the SNOO, a $1,300 “smart” bassinet, as a de rigueur item from her own parenting circles. Word of mouth helps good products gain traction — “The Merlin suit actually works, which is why it’s so popular,” she says — but it also creates a bit of a bubble effect. In my desperation for a good night’s sleep, I may have paid outsized attention to the Merlin success stories in my orbit and ignored the times when it didn’t work out.
And on second look, it often didn’t. A more thorough survey of my mom friends revealed that the Merlin was more of a crapshoot than it first seemed. It worked great for some; others hadn’t tried it. A few had horror stories like mine. “Magic, my ass!” one remembered her husband grumbling at about 3 a.m. Everyone was happy to have the goofy photo, regardless.
Even Howard says the sleep suit isn’t necessarily a sure thing. Merlin has a troubleshooting service, where parents can send a photo and get best-use tips. But, “it’s not going to work for every single baby,” she says. “Nine times out of ten, we can identify the problem. Either it doesn’t fit well, or they’re trying to put the baby in it either too early or too late. But every now and then, the baby doesn’t like it.”
My baby had good reasons for not liking it, it turned out. A week or so after our horror show of a night, she found her thumb. She was just starting to figure out how to soothe herself, and the Merlin’s thick layers had prevented her from getting a good grip. Soon after that, she started flipping between her back and her belly on her own — a real game-changer as far as sleep goes. It took several more months, but she sleeps through the night now. With those hazy, early baby days behind me, I recently posted the Merlin as a giveaway in our local parenting group. “3-6 month size, brand new,” I wrote. “My baby didn’t love it. Hopefully yours will!”