Tech + Health

08.07.14

Are We Turning Our Babies Into Real Life Tamagotchis?

Sproutling, the first predictive wearable for babies, is no doubt impressive. But does the ability to quantify our babies take away from the natural process of parenting?

Driving my two-day-old son home from the hospital, I was struck with a terror familiar to most new parents. How was it possible, I wondered, that I could care for this little person on my own?

Time did not breed confidence. As the weeks went on, I spent late nights poring over The Baby Book and Googling “Why does my baby ______?” I glued my eyes to a Blair Witch-style monitor for any sign of distress and yes, I even felt under his nose to make sure he was still breathing. I wanted answers to the big questions about eating, sleeping, crying, weight gain, breathing, pooping, and teething. But all my research boiled down to one concern: Was my newborn’s behavior, and the panic it inspired, normal?

Now big data claims to have the answer, or at least the start of one, but is the quest for more information making parenting easier, or chipping away at our instincts and turning our babies into Tamagotchis?

In the commercial for Sproutling—the first predictive wearable for babies—young parents who could easily pass for me and my husband in a poorly lit room wave as a narrator offers, “This is you.” Two minutes later, a petrified mom and dad have gained confidence in their parenting with the help of Sproutling, the San Francisco startup launched by two new dads. “Be a life-living, sleep-having, baby-raising badass,” it cheers.

Video screenshot

Like a Fitbit for grownups, the $299 kidney-shaped band is worn on the ankle and collects 16 distinct measurements every second, reporting the information back in parent-friendly terms to a mobile phone. It tracks light, noise, and temperature in the nursery, as well as baby's heart rate and sleep position. But what makes Sproutling more than an all-in-one of traditional monitors is its ability to use this data to learn your baby’s unique patterns and behaviors and then predict future ones. So, in theory, a parent could optimize their child.

There’s certainly a market. Most new moms (83 percent) are Millennials, and three-quarters of these digital natives report searching for parenting advice on their mobile devices. Thirty percent of Millennial moms regularly use parenting apps.

With the Sproutling, if baby rolls over on her tummy, stops breathing, or just gets too hot in her sleep sack, an alert pops up on any authorized phone. But most exciting for sleep-deprived parents is a magic (okay, driven by a statistical model) timer that tells you when baby is likely to wake up, and in what mood she’s in when she does.

Out of the box, the device is set to a default statistical mode, but within a week, the monitor gets more accurate. The device itself and connecting app was purposefully designed to be simple. “It doesn’t give you a wall of numbers that without the proper context could be confusing, or cause anxiety,” Sproutling co-founder Mathew Spolin told The Daily Beast.

“Parents don’t want data, they want insight,” Sproutling’s other co-founder Chris Bruce said.

The app shows indicators like heartbeat and mood in the form of animations, and sleep predictions as a clock counting down the minutes to baby’s expected wake time. “Jack is sleeping. He will wake up in about 30 minutes,” it might read. Or “Jack is awake and happy.”

There’s also a view that uses general knowledge, as well as data from your baby and other wearers, to provide foresight into when your child might hit milestones like teething or sleeping through the night—a feature for the parent who religiously searches for just what an infant should be doing as each week of life passes by.

"The more babies use this, the more we can understand,” Bruce said. “The largest sleep study we’ve ever had is 1,079 babies. And so, there’s really little we understand about how babies develop over time. We spend all this effort building machine learning models that can get you to click more ads or tell you what movies you might like, but no one has really looked at how we can apply this to making parents’ lives more effective.”

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Courtesy Sproutling

In a word, the device is amazing. And as one of those Millennial moms, I want one.

And yet.

While arguably the smartest, the Sproutling isn’t the first product to promise the power of data will make us better parents. At CES this year, Intel showed off a onesie equipped with a chip that monitors vitals and movement. There’s also the Owlet, a chunkier device that tracks health and sleep data, but lacks the Sproutling’s style and looks more like a sad baby cast than a sophisticated wearable.

Though these products claim to solve the very real problem of an unpredictable baby, one that I personally agonized over—might we be losing anything in the bargain? Sproutling’s press release compared being a first-time parent to driving around without GPS. “Wouldn't it be great,” it posited, “if today’s parents had a simple way to receive turn-by-turn navigation on their baby's sleep habits and well-being?”

I’m not so sure. In the same way GPS has meddled with our innate sense of direction, might the quantified baby create an overreliance on technology that ultimately dulls our parenting instincts? When GPS did away with wrong turns, it also took the ability to learn from them, squashed the impulse to take scenic routes, and made the journey les memorable, studies have shown.

In 1992, at the zenith of the information age, writer Bill McKibben subjected himself to a day’s worth of television—on 403 channels—and found the stream of constant information overwhelming, but unsatisfying, compared to a day spent on a mountaintop in the Adirondacks. “To the list of neighborhood and region and continent and planet,” he wrote in The Age of Missing Information, “we must now add television as a place where we live. And the problem is not that it exists—the problem is that it supplants.” Twenty years later, we might say the same of data.

Those moments of panic and helplessness as a new parent are parts of the process, and are often the times during which we learn the most. A gadget—however beautiful, however smart, however well-intentioned—can’t, and shouldn’t, try to take them away from us.