The Quantified Baby

Parents can use apps to digitally track their pregnancies and, once the child is born, naps, moods, and even diaper changes. Is there a tradeoff to all that data?

Hannibal Hanschke/Reuters

During my pregnancy, the birth of my son, and the early months of parenthood, technology has been there to mediate every step of the way. I often wonder, as I spend time with my baby, my phone always nearby, what the experience would be like without it. Though I strive to be mindful, rarely am I actively deciding to use the phone or not; I often pick it up as a reflex.

I suppose it all started with trying to get pregnant. I am rather neurotic, and though I had no reason to believe that I would have trouble getting pregnant, when it came time to try, I found myself Googling my way to various online “communities.” Did you know that there are apps and forums for tracking basal body temperature? A BBT increase often indicates that ovulation has occurred, which is the optimal time to try to make a baby. On these forums, people share their temperatures, charts, qualitative descriptions of cervical mucus, so that all may benefit from the resulting database of knowledge. The month I got pregnant, I was diligently charting my own bodily symptoms on one such site: waking up each morning, running to the bathroom to take my temperature and make the attendant observations, logging onto the site to record it all. My chart is now forever part of that structure of information. A woman might compare her chart to mine, hoping for a similar outcome—I did get pregnant, after about five months of doing this.

Not only that, but there are also communities devoted to photos of pregnancy tests. I joined one such community. I peed on many sticks. (In community shorthand, peeing on a stick is referred to as “POAS.”) I joined this site because I wanted to “catch” my pregnancy as soon as it happened. My cycles were irregular, and I didn’t want to miss it and keep drinking my daily couple glasses of wine. Really I was peeing on all these sticks because I am neurotic, and this Internet community was perfect for letting my anxiety about pregnancy, birth, and becoming a mother run wild. It was great to see that I was not alone.

How this site works is one person posts a photo of a pregnancy test, and the other users on the site vote on whether it looks positive, negative, or not clear. Pregnancy test results seem like they should be obvious. But in fact, there is a window of time, before the concentration of the hormone human chorionic gonadotropin (hCG)  surpasses a pregnancy test’s sensitivity, when one can get the coveted second line, but that line is very faint. I couldn’t ask my husband his opinion; he’d say, “Well, clearly that’s negative,” instead of staring at the strips like I did, looking for that ghost of a line. Other women on the site found their husbands similarly stoic. These women understood me. They used high-contrast and black-and-white filters (built into the site’s interface) to get a better read on the tests.

I was in Northern Michigan without phone reception when I got my big fat positive (“BFP”), and so I never got the chance to get the epic “up” vote for it. I missed the chance to use the filters, the “inverse” filter with its ultramarine blue in place of the pink. I must admit, I was disappointed. I took a photo of the test anyway.

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The popular pregnancy book What to Expect When You’re Expecting now has a corresponding app as well. The book famously compares the size of the growing fetus to various fruits (blueberry, orange, winter melon). With the app installed, I received instant weekly notifications at “new fruit” time, with an accompanying animated video of the fetus’s development.

The best part was, again, the forums that were part of the app. One could join a group for women due around the same time (“January 2015 Babies”). These groups have thousands of members, in the U.S. and abroad, from the very young to what in medical terminology is known as “advanced maternal age.” There were women for whom getting pregnant was easy or a surprise, and those for whom it was a difficult journey. Stay-at-home moms. Nurses. Women who miscarried.

In the first trimester, the posts were all about the chances of miscarriage, and the color of the bleeding. People bled bright red and lost their babies and posted their “goodbyes” to “January 2015.” Then, it was about the genetic testing, which for most women is an option at the end of the first trimester. Women shared their bad results and their false positives. Next, the sex of the baby, if they knew. Some people didn’t want to find out and felt strongly about it. There was a “belly photos” thread, a workout-support thread, threads dedicated to the successes and failures of husbands. Inflammatory conversations about abortion were unavoidable. In the final months, many people went into early labor. They shared lovely baby photos or horror stories; often the threads were updated in real time (“Going to the hospital now!” or “Getting the epidural!”). Many people responded with, “Am I the only one here who is still pregnant?” Never was anyone alone.

I also used an app called “Mindfulness for Pregnancy.” I needed the mindfulness in part to manage my feelings about all the push notifications I got from the other apps I’d signed up for. This app sent them too. Reminders to breathe, not to forget my structured meditation practice, to check in with myself. How was I feeling at that very moment? “Relax,” the app glowed purple, “and breathe.” A big breathing audio effect could be heard if the phone wasn’t muted. I liked the idea of that app, but I did not use it very frequently.

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Once the baby arrived, I found a whole new slew of apps to be distracted by. One, called BabyConnect, lets caregivers can track things like feedings, naps, and mood while parents are away, and that information synchs automatically with parents’ emails and devices.

The level of detail is astonishing. The nap tracker is essentially a stopwatch. One hits “start” when the baby falls asleep and “stop” at the sound of the first awake cry. I suppose that’s the intent, anyway, but for infants, the territory between sleep and wakefulness is vast.

With diapers, one also has options. Caregivers can choose between “poopy,” “poopy and wet,” “wet,” and “dry.” (Why change a dry diaper?) Add-on detail includes whether it’s a diaper leak, an “open-air accident,” which sounds like some kind of skydiving mishap, and a range of quantity from small to large. Should you need to note anything else, a free-range window for notes is also available. Feeding information can be similarly detailed. And there are options to track things like moods, types of play, etc. These things can be charted and graphed, and data can be exported into a spreadsheet.

I test the app so I know what it’s like before asking a nanny or family babysitter to use it. My experience of the baby is mechanized. Always I feel like I am gathering data, observing, making decisions about how to properly record our interactions. He is starting to smile, and sometimes I miss the start of the smiles, find my way to them towards the end, because I am entering data. I won’t need to enter the data forever, I suppose. The caregivers will. I could just read their reports.

I wonder whether the relationship between the caregiver and baby suffers with all of this data management in between. A computer keeps what’s entered accurately; there are no cloudy memories about nap times or ounces of milk in bottles. There is less conversation between me and my son’s caregivers at the end of the day, too. But the integrity of my relationship with him feels somehow degraded by the constantly measuring eye. That observation changes the observed isn’t new, but I hadn’t considered it in the context of watching my son. Do I want, at the end of the day, to stare at data, or to hear an imperfect but narrative human account of his day? Always there are options.

It’s not all apps, of course. From the day he was born, I’ve been using my phone to time breastfeeding sessions. The lactation specialist was strict with me: 15 minutes, each side. Which means that I have often been browsing the Internet, checking and re-checking email, while breastfeeding, instead of staring at the fine hairs on the side of his head, instead of checking out the wax accumulating in his tiny ears, or the little flakes of skin between his eyebrows and near the corner of his eye.

When I have my phone nearby, I am also thinking about taking photos or videos, and texting and emailing them to my husband and family. Or posting them on various types of social media. I wonder whether what I send to his grandparents will be shared by them more broadly, and whether I mind or not.

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There is plenty of talk and research about the importance of limiting screen time for babies and young children. (Still, many adults I know let their infants and toddlers use their devices. Sometimes the kids even find new features the parents didn’t know about.) But should new parents aim to limit their own screen time as well? Childhood has changed (as it has each generation), but parenting has too.

Recently NPR challenged its listeners to track exactly how often they check their phones each day, and when the number proved to be unsurprisingly staggering (the checking-in adds up, on average, to almost three hours of phone time per day), challenged them to limit the number of times they check in “just because.” Success was limited, too, at this challenge, for those who chose to take it on. The space that used to be the realm of “just being,” and sometimes “boredom,” was the same space from which creativity arose, NPR argued. The idea of the challenge was to encourage users to re-discover that space.

Consistency is good, but not always. Children have a lot to do with raising themselves. Write down what they say! An open heart is the primary factor. So reads a note card I received at my baby shower. I’d asked the mothers there for advice. This particular advice comes from my son’s grandmother, my husband’s mother. It begins to explain, I think, what I feel I’m whittling away when I’m staring at my phone while spending time with my son. Whether digital media can support the spirit of parenting the card suggests depends on me, how I let technology into my life.

When I am on my phone, and my email account tells me it’s updated “just now” as my son squirms and babbles and makes liquidy digestion sounds, I am pulled into something like the present moment, by him and by that phrasing, “just now.” He is only two months old, and I do not know the answer to the question of exactly what I’m missing when I mediate our relationship with technology. It is just that I have a growing sense of something missing, something, perhaps, that springs from the place where nothingness should be.