Ever since my first child Oliver was born, I’ve been tracking him. I’m starting to regret it.
I’ve been logging his feeds, sleeps and dirty diapers for months. I’ve dressed him in smart socks and connected onesies and nappies with QR codes. I’ve harvested stats from his sleeping body via Bluetooth and benchmarked his weight gain against his peers.
It’s part of an experiment to see if technology can help with the daunting and seemingly Sisyphean tasks of a first time parent, to find out why a growing number of people are turning to gadgets to help with one of life’s toughest jobs.
But somewhere along the way I think I missed the point.
Oliver has quietly generated enough stats to last a lifetime, while I’ve missed milestones, stuck head down in a phone screen grappling with numbers. Attempting to simplify parenthood with gizmos and apps has perversely made it a lot more complicated. And as for peace of mind, forget it.
I’m not alone in my quest to simplify and demystify those early days. The concept of the “quantified baby” has been around for some time now, and there’s a large and growing market for smart infant products from anxious or diligent or curious new parents. As the proliferation of baby books and blogs attests, parenthood is a confusing time and more and more people are building connected nurseries to help with the job.
It’s a logical transition for a generation well versed in monitoring their own heart rates and calorie intakes with Fitbits, Fuelbands, Jawbones, Garmins and countless other devices. It’s a potentially lucrative game too, with several startups and crowdfunded projects setting their sights on major investment and international roll-outs.
But does it all help you to be a better father, or mother, or is it all a massive distraction from the serious business of parenting? Or worse still, could it hinder your ability to nurture your child or even endanger them?
My descent into infant tracking hell
When Oliver Milo Chester emerged into the world at 4:31 p.m. on a Thursday afternoon in late June, fashionably late at +14 days after three days of labour, he was immediately assessed: 7 lb. 9 oz.; 48 cm long; 10 fingers and 10 toes.
During his first few hours, life was a blissful bubble for the three of us, floating to his rhythm and punctuated only by more checkups and box ticking. Then the cord was cut with the NHS. We were alone when the daunting responsibility of looking after a new human being hit us.
There’s nothing more terrifying in those early hours than a silent baby. When the coos and squeals and gurgles die down to a dull roar, parents can breathe a sigh of relief. When they evaporate completely into a deathly nothingness, panic paws at the pit of your stomach, the sad spectre of SIDS lingering in the nursery shadows.
The Owlet is one product designed to give parents peace of mind.
A smart sock in pastel green that fits on the baby’s left foot and retails at $249, it uses pulse oximetry to measure heart rate and oxygen levels, sending the readings to your phone, as well as a base station that pulses red or green depending on the output.
It was a slick piece of kit, unobtrusively keeping a weather on his vital signs as he slept and providing mesmerising viewing from afar. In his blissful slumber he managed to kick the sock off, though, sending the base station into alarm mode and us sprinting in to see what had happened. It wasn’t the most harmonious moment in a household where peace was increasingly hard to come by.
A few nights later, we decided to switch tactics and set up a Withings home monitor, a Wi-Fi connected eye in the room that takes in a 135-degree view through a five megapixel camera. It also monitors air quality and allows you to talk to a roused baby through your phone or trigger lullabies and soothing lighting.
It bought us enough time to catch up on the Feed Baby app, noting down his recent feeds, sleeps, poops and pees. The app, perhaps the key part of any infant tracker’s arsenal, also allows you to keep tabs on baths, medicine intake, growth and vaccinations, translating it all into rudimentary reports and — in theory — a better awareness of what makes your baby tick, spit and cry.
In practise, ours at least was much more random than that. We let him eat when he was hungry and sleep when he was tired, and his preferences didn’t settle into any discernible pattern. Long sleeps in the daytime seemed to have no effect at night; feedings could follow in quick succession or come spread far apart. Heavy nappies came like clockwork.
Another London-based baby blogger tracked her child for even longer and found little benefit. Sophie Lewis diligently inputted everything for seven months following the birth of her daughter Stevie, and is unsure why.
“I do wonder why I bothered doing it, at least for so long,” she told me. While tracking proved useful as a reminder of feedings, and gave an objective insight into longer term sleep patterns, there wasn’t much she could do with the info.
It’s the same problem quantified self devotees have: what to do with all that data. Unless you’re a math or data viz wizard and prepared to take it all incredibly seriously, the numbers that consumer gadgets and apps spew out can be pretty meaningless — even more so when you’re dealing with an unpredictable baby.
“I was still ultimately reading her cues and when I paid too much attention to the app data (e.g trying to encourage a nap at a certain time because it copied a time she slept well later), it was a distraction,” she said. “It was frustrating and didn’t work. At the end of the day it’s only information; there’s not a lot you can do with it because the source is a baby.”
“I’ve concluded that babies are far simpler than parenting culture makes it seem, but you just have to accept they don’t make much sense sometimes.”
The Mimo smart onesie attempts to use data to address one of those perennial new parent problems: sleep. The product, which features a magnetic turtle that quietly records your baby’s breathing, body position, sleep activity and skin temperature and sends it to a “lily pad” and on to a smartphone, is pretty user friendly — but temporarily baffling to an insomnia-addled dad.
I eventually got it working and toggled some of the alerts off. (You can get pinged if the child moves onto its side or stomach, or sits upright, but I was confident I didn’t need them, and my wife’s tolerance for feedback was beginning to wane.) A drop in temperature or a straight up cessation of breathing were enough for me.
The next morning and the app was full of charts, breaking down the previous night into sessions of quiet sleep, active sleep and wakefulness. It was interesting to me, perhaps less of a revelation to my wife who was up breastfeeding at each of those orange intervals of wakefulness.
The Mimo and the Owlet are just the tip of the emerging infant tracking iceberg. You could, if you had the time, the money and the inclination, wrap your child’s ankle in a Sproutling band, which senses heart rate and movement, or soothe them with the Pacif-I dummy that takes temperature readings and also triggers an alarm if the baby wanders out of range.
You could feed them with the “anti-colic” Baby Gig-l or dispense milk from the nutrition-tracking Sleevely bottle holder. You could even introduce them to a new BFF, the cuddly but strangely sinister Teddy the Guardian, a bear who secretly seamlessly transmits data during playtime.
The array on offer is seemingly endless. During the course of the experiment I was also sent: prototype smart diapers which come emblazoned with a QR code and analyse their wearer’s urine to apparently monitor everything from dehydration to kidney function and even diabetes; a Snuza, an abdominal monitor which vibrates when movements drop below a certain frequency and sound an alarm if the belly is still for more than 15 seconds; and some smart scales from Withings, which became our go-to gadget for obsessive tracking.
At one point I discovered he’d leapt from the 54th centile to the 63rd weight-wise, heavier for his age than 62 babies out of 100. Is this OK? Should I be worried? Or feeding him less?
Voices of dissent amid the rush to quantify our kids
The rise in infant tracking products has proved controversial. David King, a lecturer in pediatrics at the University of Sheffield, ruffled some feathers in the industry last autumn with a scathing article on the trend in the British Medical Journal.
Noting the sector’s growth, he compared the current situation to the influx of products that aimed to address SIDS in the 1980s and 1990s, adding that that first generation were proven to have no effect on the incidence of SIDS at the time and that a similar scepticism should be taken now.
“If people see these devices as a bit of fun, then that is absolutely fine,” he told me. “They should not be bought by parents who want to use them to monitor the health or wellbeing of their baby, as there is absolutely no evidence that they are able to do this effectively.”
King concedes that infant tracking devices aren’t necessarily harmful per se, but could encourage parents to disregard existing advice on avoiding SIDS, such as placing a baby to sleep on its back and keeping its feet at the foot of the cot.
He adds that many devices “exploit the anxiety new parents feel when they go home with a baby” and could potentially increase their anxiety with every false alarm.
The manufacturers of these devices usually insist they’re not selling medical products, often offering a disclaimer to that effect on their sites. While some initially pursued FDA approval, they ended up altering their approach and bringing a consumer product to market. This means, according to King, that any claims in their marketing messages don’t need to be backed up with hard medical data. That said, the makers of the Owlet told me they’re currently doing research with universities and hospitals.
King’s concerns are shared by other paediatricians, but some parents disagree. Kyrsten, one participant in an NPR discussion in the U.S. who had lost a child to SIDS, insisted she would use these sorts of products for peace of mind. Around 2,000 children reportedly die of SIDS each year in the States, constituting some 0.05% of infants.
Quantified babies: Worth the hassle?
Aside from the medical benefits or otherwise of infant tracking, and perhaps some degree of reassurance, is it worth quantifying your own child?
We’re lucky so far, Oliver is happy and healthy. We don’t have any health issues to keep an eye on or behaviour we want to change. He gained weight and fed well. We really had nothing much to gain from all this incessant tracking. In fact, introducing a laboratory of tech, turning his corner of the flat into a mess of wires and filling our phones with apps has caused a host of problems.
My wife is an infinitely patient person but there were times when the experiment pushed it: when a false alarm’s shrill siren rang out at another ungodly hour; or every time I bowled home from work at 7 p.m., mid bath-and-unwind time, to insist he was bundled up in another kimono before frantically searching the flat, baby dangling, for a plastic turtle; when I interrogated her, “Left breast or right? And for how long did he feed? And then he slept for how many minutes again? I think he’s due another feed. Let me just scan that QR code quickly first.”
It’s probably easier if the mother or primary caregiver takes the lead.
Marital strain aside, the reliance on graphs and data and alerts distracted me from the serious business of reading the real clues on his tiny face: The hands rubbing eyes signifying nap time; the suckling on my arm as I fiddled with another monitor; the cheerful mewl after a well executed burp.
It’s hard to intuit their needs when you’re using data as a crutch, and there were some readings that might have given a more anxious parent palpitations, as well as others I didn’t really need to know at all. As for bonding, there were times I had more in common with my iPhone than my son. From now on, he’s going off grid. I’ll learn to live without knowing his oxygen levels.
Near the end of Oliver’s time as an unwitting data hub, he contracted a mild fever from his second set of vaccinations. The tech we used for checking on his temperature during that time? A good old-fashioned thermometer up the bottom.
Have something to add to this story? Share it in the comments.