In an effort to help his wife cope with the day-to-day tasks of child rearing due to the birth of their second child, Skinner thought he might be able to improve upon the standard crib. He invented the ‘air-crib’ to meet this challenge. An ‘air-crib' (also known as a ‘baby tender’ or humorously as an ‘heir conditioner’) is an easily cleaned, temperature and humidity-controlled crib Skinner designed to assist in the raising of babies.
Skinner designed this initial, preliminary prototype of the Air-Crib for his first child because he thought it would help parents who were awakened by their crying babies at night due to cold temperatures, and a need for essential clothing, or sheets. Despite allegations to the contrary, Skinner’s daughter Deborah claims to never have felt abused or neglected by use of the Air-Crib. He thought doing so would alleviate “troublesome” environmental issues.
It was one of his most controversial inventions, and was popularly mischaracterized as cruel and experimental. The crib was often compared to his operant conditioning chamber, crudely known as the “Skinner Box.” This association with a system of experimentation and pellet rewards quashed any success. It was designed to make early childcare simpler (by greatly reducing laundry, diaper rash, cradle cap, etc.), while encouraging the baby to be more confident, mobile, comfortable, healthy and therefore less prone to cry. (Babies sleep and will sometimes play in air cribs but it is misleading to say they are ‘raised’ in them. Apart from newborns, most of a baby’s waking hours will be spent out of the crib.) Reportedly it had some success in these goals. Air-cribs were later unsuccessfully commercially manufactured by several companies. After companies had attempted to sell this product to a large market, they had failed in their marketing strategies.
A 2004 book by Lauren Slater, entitled Opening Skinner’s Box: Great Psychology Experiments of the Twentieth Century caused much controversy by mentioning the common rumors that Skinner had used his baby daughter Deborah in some of his experiments and that she had subsequently committed suicide. Although Slater’s book immediately afterwards stated that the rumours were false, Slater also allowed the reader to believe that Deborah had disappeared, thus doing little to quash the rumors (apart from her own denial of their truth). A reviewer in The Observer in March 2004 then misquoted Slater’s books as supporting the rumours. This review was read by Deborah Skinner (now Deborah Buzan, an artist and writer living in London) who then in turn wrote a vehement riposte in The Guardian.