George Bailey knows that capsule beds didn’t originate with his company, zPods, but this flip on a product’s origin story is perhaps a first in the world of wellness. Many popular tools and wellness products were designed to help disabled, autistic and/or neurodivergent users first. Think of banana slicers or of the immensely popular weighted blankets, which were made with autistic and neurodivergent children in mind and then popularized for their calming, anti-anxiety effect. So while capsule beds began as an especially popular space-saver design in Japanese hotels, Bailey and his business partners recognized the sleep benefit it could have for neurodivergent kids.
According to research, up to 80% of autistic children have difficulty sleeping. Often, autistic children find it hard to sleep because of sensory sensitivities to their sleeping environment. Like a lot of other autistic people, I slept in forts and closets as a kid — once I even slept in the box that my mom’s new washing machine came in.
Understanding this, Bailey and his business partners wanted to create beds that were accessible and customized to autistic kids’ needs. zPods are fully enclosed capsule beds designed with the idea that “sleep environment is a key component to good sleep hygiene,” Bailey says. While they can be customized, the classic bunk bed design is decked out, on the inside, with lighting control, air filters, and a sliding door for complete enclosure.
Bailey, along with the other founders of zPods, knew these features would increase sleep quality and have a profound impact on children’s lives and their families. “We’re trying to make progress on this vision of what the ultimate sleep environment could be like,” says Bailey. “And one of the joys of working with autistic children is that they are so diverse [in their responses] that they push our imaginations.”
To learn more about how transformative these beds can be for the sleep experience of autistic and neurodivergent children, teens, and potentially adults, we spoke with George Bailey, president and one of the founders of zPods.
I’d love it if you could start by exploring why you decided to start zPods.We wanted something that just felt right, and we wanted to feel like we were doing something meaningful so that when one of our friends started suggesting using [capsule beds] to help kids with autism, that really clicked with me. My oldest son and my fourth child, a daughter, have autism [so I know how] autistic children have this kind of sense of space that is very different. It was worth looking into.
When we brought my kids in, just to kind of see how they would react, we were looking for something more than just like “I like it!” We practiced a lot of caution because kids are gonna love these things no matter what.
[But] what really struck me was that when Joseph — my oldest who was 11 at the time — first saw the bed, he took to it so quickly. He closed himself off inside without prompting, we didn’t prepare him. And I let him just stay for a minute. I didn’t hear anything from the inside, or from the outside. He wasn’t like jumping around, which you would be able to hear as the pod is not fully silent.
I gave him a little bit of time before I opened up the door. And when I did, I could see Joseph lying down, completely still, with his hands behind his back, and just completely chill. I knew we were onto something.
Where did you go from that discovery?
Certainly any business model requires more than a hunch. So we started talking with experts in autism, doctors, therapists, and other professionals who work with autistic children. And the answer was pretty resounding: “Oh this could be cool.” And there was an instinct for all of the reasons why.
Number one, autistic children love enclosures. [Many] will close themselves in the closet and sleep there, or in a cabinet, or under the bed, or in between mom and dad, or between the couch and the wall.
The LED lighting has a certain attraction to autistic children. They just love it. They find it soothing. [But] if your kid actually [prefers] total darkness, this delivers pretty well too. It does much better than black out curtains.
Another component is the fans in here. The fans create air circulation and keep the inside more comfortable [and] the fact that they generate white noise is incidental but really helpful. It masks a lot of outside noises and is soothing for many autistic children.
We started running the capsule by other parents and asking, “What else would you like to have? What else would you like to see?” And that’s where the new model comes in. We’re including a slew of new features that are not in the current model.
Why do you think these beds have such a calming effect on kids?
What I’m doing [with zPods] is taking the cluttered bedroom out of the equation. Why not create a space within the bedroom where you can escape?
Think about how you feel when you walk into your kitchen with dirty dishes as opposed to how you feel when you walk into your kitchen when it’s clean. It is a remarkably different feeling, and it cultivates remarkably different reactions.
On a psychological level, what I believe is happening is that an unbeatable feeling of safety is being built. One of our founders' children, who is not autistic, is terrified of monsters under the bed. Before he got his bed, his mom and dad would have to go through the same ritual each evening, which consisted of closing the closet door, shutting the windows, and checking under the bed. They would then spend about an hour every night reassuring him that everything would be okay and helping resolve disputes between [him] and his sister. Now that he’s starting sleeps in one of these, they stopped having issues altogether. And that’s a big deal. I try not to make light of the emotional connection that children have with their sleep spaces.
Are the beds customizable in any way?
The ultimate goal is that the bed will be completely customizable. [The current mode] is as customizable as you are creative. We’ve had one family, for example, with an 18-year-old son who has frequent seizures, and the seizures formed a vicious cycle with sleeplessness. So [we] installed a camera [into their zPod] so they watch for any sudden movement, anything that would alert them to the fact that their son was having a seizure.
Our goal is to go beyond that to make each customization as easy as possible. You know, so that gives you... maybe a little bit of a sneak peek into what we’re thinking about the bed because there’s just, oh my gosh, there’s so much you can do.
Can you share more about the future of zPods?
What we’re trying to create is a responsive environment that perfectly caters to your specific sleep-environment needs. And if you can imagine it, we are thinking about it right now — and that [includes] every sense, from sight to sound to smell. We want a full sensory experience, which allows us to basically match the sleep needs of any individual.
My most memorable night of sleep was when I was working for an investment firm, and... I stayed at a Surf and Sand hotel in Laguna. I remember outside of the room was a balcony from which I could see the beach. And the beach was a lot closer than I expected, to the point that at night, the waves were booming up against the foundation of the building. And I remember thinking, “I’m not going to be able to sleep through that.”
On the contrary, I slept extraordinarily well. The smell of the sea... the boom of the waves on the foundation of the building — all of that created such an extraordinary sensory experience that I had the best sleep of my life, at least that I can remember since having children.
My goal is to recreate that so that every time I go to sleep that’s what I’m getting. I love the idea that we’re creating the ultimate security in sleep experience [and matching anyone’s sleep needs] — those are the guiding principle that will drive the future of zPods.
This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.
You might be interested in learning about how weighted stuffed animals or blankets can help your child sleep. Or about misophonia, a condition that causes people to be emotionally affected by common sounds. Or if you want more general sleep help, we’ve re-capped how to create sleep affirmations, tips for better sleep, and sleep hygiene.
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