The Reluctantly Quantified Parent

Baby-tracking tools can help make sense of the chaos of sleepless nights with a newborn.

Jorge Dan Lopez/Reuters

When I found out I was pregnant, the first thing I did after stocking up on vitamins was cut back on things that made me nervous.

I'm not the most tranquil creature, and it felt like a concrete responsibility, being someone's life support system. I wanted to keep the biochemical jangles to a minimum for our kid as she developed. I wanted the same for after she was born: a quiet environment to cushion us during the crazy stretch ahead. A big part of that was a refusal of anxious technology.

I wasn’t interested in purist “unplugging” or going device-free, but I wanted to be selective. Yes to a white-noise app on the iPad I no longer had free hands for. No to the infrared night vision video monitor, the iOS nannycam system, and the terrifying sensor system that would bleep if the baby stopped breathing. And a thousand times no to the elaborate systems of tracking sleep and timing feedings and weighing each day's dirty diapers. Charts displaying seconds of nap and grams of poo seemed like a metaphor for the excesses of modern hyper-intensive parenting, not to mention the habit of mistaking data for meaning. No.

The baby would sleep near us, I'd feed her when she was hungry, and if she needed anything in the night, I'd be right there. We'd be okay as long as we sometimes found a way to sleep.

And that was the thing. Until the baby was born, I’d hoped that my lifelong insomnia would prepare me for the sleep deprivation I knew was coming. My partner and I had spent our twenties avoiding sleep and we were good at handling the effects. We would take turns. We would sleep when the baby slept. It would be hard, but we'd survive.

Then our daughter arrived in the glare of a late-night surgery and I started sleeping an hour or two in each 24-hour stretch, and it was hard, really hard. But it was an expected kind of difficulty, and I was off work, so I could take naps, and my partner took the hardest shifts he could to win me enough sleep to function—and if we sometimes cracked up a little bit, we knew that somewhere around three months in, it would get better.

It did not get better.

As we headed into months four and five, it got worse. Fragmented newborn sleep turned into reflux so bad that each nighttime feeding meant two hours of wakeful time holding the baby upright until she could finally lie down without screaming—and then an hour or two of sleep before the next round began with an earsplitting shriek. I learned you can be so sleep deprived that the roots of your teeth become inflamed. I stumbled my way through half a dozen of the kinds of books purchased only by desperately tired parents and their well-intentioned relatives. One book strongly recommended tracking sleep and feedings—but only for a week. Longer than that, the author warned, would lead to uncontrollable worries and visitations from malicious spirits. (I'm sure she actually said it was too granular to be useful or some other sensible thing, but I was beyond comprehension.)

We started tracking sleep using a pen and a notebook—a notebook I rediscovered a week ago on a shelf. Those early pages are something from a horror novel: The scrawled handwriting doesn't even look like ours and the basics of addition clearly eluded us.

During one of the regular dark stretches I spent rocking the baby between 3 a.m. and 5 a.m., I found an iPhone app that promised to make it easier, and to sync across multiple devices so we wouldn't have to interrogate each other during each bleary wake-up to find out what had happened during the last round. By that point I was too focused on survival to care about the anxiety-producing qualities of parenting technologies. My one requirement was that the buttons be large enough to see with my eyes mostly closed. They were. Countless nights awake became counted—and weirdly, it helped. Seeing the unexaggerated insanity of our schedule made sense of our exhausted communication glitches and my inability to get through a day without sitting on the kitchen floor and crying. It didn't help much, but it was something.

A few weeks later, when the baby decided that being rocked to sleep was the nearest thing to child abuse, another 4 a.m. shopping session netted one of the exact night-vision video monitors I'd side-eyed while pregnant. It was zoomed to our house via Amazon Prime and we bolted it to the wall over her crib the night it arrived. The ring of red LEDs looked like the Eye of Sauron sketched on an evil Lite Brite, and the grainy black-and-white display resembled a trailer for one of the Paranormal Activity movies. I felt like a lunatic. Later that week, our daughter taught herself to fall asleep on her own while we cradled the video monitor in the next room. (She cried half as long in her crib alone as she did in my arms. Baby Garbo wanted to be alone.) 

And then, gradually, things started to ease up. 

The bars of sleep in the baby-app chart got longer and we stopped hallucinating. It wasn't because of the app, but the app helped—we used it to find patterns that worked, test tweaks in our routine, and above all, sanity-check our own exhausted perceptions. And, blissfully, because all the info was on our phones, we could spend our brief moments alone together talking about something—anything—other than her sleep.

* * *

My worries about nervy monitoring technology weren't entirely misplaced. It's very easy to switch the video display on and peek at her when I wake in the night. But on the other hand, I no longer haul myself out of bed and schlep in to check on her every time she sneezes in the dark. And if I still spend too much time at 3 a.m. staring at the pattern of naps in the baby app, it's not the software's fault that my sleep is permanently haywire after those long months of exhaustion.

Still, it's time to start phasing out the tracking and monitoring tech. We've already stopped tracking food and everything else except sleep and medication, but I’ve become a little bit attached to the tracking app itself. Especially when I'm on the road, it’s turned into a small ambient tunnel to my home life. From a meeting 2,000 miles away, I can see the sleep timer turn off and know my baby just woke up, saw her dad, and scrambled to the end of the crib to greet him. Even the Sauron-eyed monitor turned out unexpectedly sweet: In the evenings after dinner, I switch it on while I read to watch her curled up asleep like a challah in a nightgown. It's peaceful and I love it—and it's also not something I want to normalize.

In a month or two we'll unbolt the camera from the wall and pack it off to another household. The app is already more of a talisman against our shared chaotic past than a tool of practical use. Once she sleeps through the night a few times, we'll delete it and chuck the data. I could save it alongside the zillion fuzzy phone-cam shots of her first wiggles and smiles and count it as part of her new-school baby book, but I'd rather wipe the slate and relegate the graphs of sleepless nights to my own fallible memory. She's already weighed and measured into her doctor's databases, and the Great Amazon Brain probably has a better idea of her development than we do. In a few years she'll be able to start choosing her own constellation of shared data points. Until then, I'd rather let the measures of her nights—and days—stay hers alone.