Baby, Monitored

Parents can remotely track infants’ heart rate, their mood, and their every move—but should they?

Alvaro Dominguez

Going through pregnancy, an obstetrician once told me, is a little like cooking a rotisserie chicken: “You just set it and forget it.” Once the baby arrives, life with a newborn, though chaotic, is its own kind of waiting game. Tiny humans are soft, and they make pleasant squeaking noises, but they don’t actually do much.

Yet to judge by the offerings of the baby-industrial complex, the early months are full of activity that parents need to closely monitor, record, and analyze. At tech events like the annual Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, the array of devices aimed at new parents is eye-popping. “It gets bigger and bigger every year,” says Jerry Beilinson, an editor at Consumer Reports. “There are baby monitors just everywhere.” Alongside those monitors are all sorts of “smart” devices: smart bottle-holders, smart pacifiers, smart car seats—even smart diapers that send an alert when the baby needs changing. Pediatricians, researchers, and other experts say these technologies are already reshaping ideas about parenting. Here’s how.

1 | The Quantified Baby

Gerber; Valerie Macon / AFP / Getty; Wikimedia

Parents have long used pen-and-paper charts to log their newborn’s wet diapers for the first few weeks. Now many are turning to apps to track that information and much more—and they keep using them for months or even years. The Total Baby app is a typical example. It lets parents record their child’s feedings, baths, sleep, and diaper changes. Parents can then download spreadsheets or graphs to analyze a cranky newborn’s sleep patterns, or to create a data visualization of their baby’s week.

Other tools gather information automatically through sensors. Take the Starling, a device that clips onto a baby’s clothes and counts the number of words he or she hears (and, later on, says) each day. The technology is based on research suggesting that kids who hear more words have bigger vocabularies and perform better on IQ tests.

Using apps to track the minutiae of daily life has become, for some, a modern-day equivalent of diary-keeping. But how much meaning can be extracted from the individual records these apps produce is debatable, and some experts warn that they can trigger anxiety anytime there’s a small deviation from the norm.

In aggregate, however, the data collected by these apps could prove invaluable. Personal information entered into an app becomes potential fodder for market research, targeted advertising, and academic study. Perhaps one day all our logging and charting will lead to discoveries that unlock the secrets of infant sleep or prevent developmental delays. But there are obvious privacy concerns, too. “It’s important to realize you don’t own that data,” Beilinson says. “Nothing that you enter into an app is protected.”

2 | The Nursery as NICU

Tools previously found only in doctors’ offices and hospitals have started appearing in new and expectant parents’ homes. Handheld fetal-heart monitors, for example, are easy to buy online and promise to reassure nervous parents-to-be. But physicians caution that using such a device without proper training can lead to false alarms or, worse, delays in lifesaving treatment if parents misinterpret the results.

Wearables like a sleep-tracking bodysuit from Mimo and a clip-on monitor called the Snuza Hero are designed to alert parents—either via smartphone notification or an alarm—if the baby exhibits a concerning drop in movement or breathing while sleeping. A company called Owlet sells a smart sock based on the technology behind a pulse oximeter—the device hospitals use to measure oxygen saturation in the blood—and promotes it with this dark tagline: “Why do you get an alert when someone ‘likes’ your status but not when your baby stops breathing?” The Mimo bodysuit and a smart pacifier called the Pacif‑i can send temperature readings to an iPhone.

How all these sensors might affect a baby is an open question. Scientists don’t know, for example, whether having a Bluetooth-enabled device pressed up against a tiny abdomen for hours at a time could cause health problems later on. There’s also the question of what kinds of habits parents develop through all this obsessive monitoring. “Even in the neonatal intensive-care unit, we don’t constantly take the temperature of stable infants,” says Lisa Asta, a pediatrician and spokesperson for the American Academy of Pediatrics. Paula Fass, a cultural historian at UC Berkeley and the author of The End of American Childhood, thinks these devices can have a lasting effect on parenting styles. “One of the consequences is to make parents much more comfortable with constant oversight of their children—part of the pattern that leads to helicoptering of all kinds,” she says.

Still, this trend shows no signs of abating. In June, Google was awarded a patent for a crib embedded with sensors that “can be used to learn the behavior of the crib occupant” and “automatically act upon a detected condition in the crib or with the occupant,” according to patent documents. For older children, SleepNumber makes a bed that tracks a kid’s breathing, heart rate, and movement, and notifies parents when he gets up.

3 | Baby Mood Rings

A newborn is something of a black box. Figuring out what’s going on behind those infant eyes can be difficult, if not impossible—especially when the baby won’t stop crying at three in the morning. Naturally, some companies have developed technologies that promise to help parents do so.

Take the Cry Translator. Available as either a device or an app, it claims to determine within seconds whether a baby is crying due to hunger, sleepiness, stress, boredom, or discomfort. But while there have been valid scientific efforts to establish a correlation between the pitch and frequency of a baby’s cries and the source of his or her distress, that research involves significant guesswork and limitations. Among other problems, babies can’t actually confirm whether the adults got it right.

The growing field of “affective computing”—which aims to create systems and devices that can interpret human emotions—may yield more-promising tools. One early example is the Sproutling, a baby ankle bracelet that monitors temperature, noise, movement, heart rate, and other factors to determine when a sleeping baby is likely to wake up and also promises to alert parents if the baby is upset. (Never mind that babies already have an effective way to communicate that they’re upset: crying.) As the field develops, we may see more-fine-grained results. Researchers are developing sensors that gauge an infant’s physiological state, including stimulation, discomfort, and distress.

4 | Find My iChild

Once a child starts walking, parents confront a new set of worries—and a slew of new devices to address them. With Pocketfinder, a plastic disc that can be clipped to a T‑shirt or dropped in a backpack, parents can track their kid’s whereabouts on a smartphone app. For shorter-range child tracking, the Mommy I’m Here, a teddy-bear-shaped trinket that you can clip onto a kid’s shoe, will let out a 90-decibel alarm, as loud as a train whistle, when you press the locator button. Its range is 150 feet, so the idea is to press the button if you’ve suddenly become separated from your child in public. Two smart wristbands, the Filip and the GizmoPal 2, track children and allow them to call home.

Could we one day take this trend to its logical conclusion and implant microchips right into our children? Lots of people ask veterinarians to insert chips—essentially digital ID tags—between the shoulder blades of their cats and dogs. And implantable chips for humans already exist. In 2004, the FDA approved the VeriChip, a tiny RFID transponder just beneath the skin on a person’s right arm that could be used to call up her medical history. The device was discontinued six years later, after studies in animals indicated that such chips could cause cancer. But it’s possible that similar chips could make a comeback, this time with GPS capability, kind of like the Find My iPhone app, but for people. If, that is, we could eliminate the cancer risk and overcome the privacy concerns, both existential and pragmatic—including the possibility of hackers tracking kids. And unlike other gadgets, implanted microchips aren’t exactly easy to stop using as children grow up—which happens unimaginably fast, no matter how closely you track them.