Why Smart Bottles Are a Racket

Babies don’t need to be optimized or quantified. 

01.24.16 5:15 AM ET

For new parents, the amount of stuff that seems to come with babies can be overwhelming. Layettes and burp cloths. Diapers and wipes. Roughly 17,000 onesies. Parents will need some of this, and some they can do without.

One thing absolutely nobody needs? A “smart” baby bottle.

And yet, unto this utterly non-existent breach rides a San Diego-based start-up. Thrive Feeding has raised half a million dollars in its quest to market products that will supposedly help parents tell if their babies are healthy eaters or not.

“The story of Thrive was that we came into it knowing we could make a newborn feeding device that would be efficient, simple, and intelligent and would actually tell mothers how healthy their baby was from a feeding perspective,” founder Brian Wadsworth told MobiHealthNews. “There is nothing available to the healthcare system or to mothers themselves that directly tells them that their baby is a healthy feeder. Or if it’s not a healthy feeder, gives any clues as to why not.”

I sit in stupefied amazement at that statement.

As it happens, there is rather a robust presence within the health-care system for telling mothers (and also fathers!) if their baby is a healthy feeder. They are called “pediatricians,” and there are quite a number of us. We are very happy to offer guidance for all manner of feeding concerns.

But really, for the vast majority of parents, the question of whether or not their child is a healthy eater requires very little professional oversight at all, particularly for bottle-fed infants. Pretty much every bottle on the market today has little marks on the side that will tell moms and dads the volume of formula or breast milk their child is offered, and how much they have consumed. 

If your baby is taking an age-appropriate number of ounces (and your pediatrician is glad to review that amount with you) on a relatively consistent schedule, then the healthy feeder issue is easily settled. If the baby is gaining weight at a good clip, I am at a loss to determine what other information might be helpful.

Does your baby bottle hold liquid? Check. Can you attach a nipple? Check. Congratulations, you have all the elements required. While there is a variety of additional features you can find, and some babies take better to one style or another, the basics are pretty universal.

Not to be outdone by advances in container science, however, makers of formula itself are also in pursuit of products needed by no one.

To wit, the Gerber BabyNes, a Keurig-like apparatus that promises a “brilliant future” for babies lucky enough to be fed by one. Parents pop in a pod of various different formulas that are “perfectly in-sync with [baby’s] development,” which appear to vary every few weeks or months. Customers can sign up for additional services, like weight trackers and convenient reminders to order more capsules of formula.

If this article could include sound clips, here is where I would insert one of me pounding my head against my desk.

Even for parents who opt for the burden of mixing water and scoops of powder, which takes whole minutes to accomplish, the array of formula varieties now available can be dizzying. Stroll down the aisle of baby products at your local supermarket and witness the stunning number of different labels. There are some advertised to control fussiness, and others for mothers who choose to supplement their nursing with formula. There are yet more that supposedly meet the nutritional needs of toddlers.

When parents ask me about these products, I tell them they’re to ensure their child receives the recommended daily allowance of marketing.

The fact of the matter is that whatever purported benefit promised by the different formulas, they do not remotely justify the increase in price point. When my oldest child was an infant, I stood in the aisle at Target and compared an expensive name brand with the generic variety. They were identical, ingredient by ingredient. Absent a medical need for a different formula, the store brand is what I recommend to my patients now. For toddlers, there’s milk.

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The clue as to why these products exist and why a “smart” bottle may be on the horizon is hidden in something Wadsworth said about the goals for his new gizmo. Specifically, he said “the philosophy of the product is to treat feeding as a performance issue.” Because God forbid we treat child-rearing as something other than a series of performance issues, starting with natural childbirth and ending with an Ivy League degree.

The apotheosis of this mindset came a while ago in the form of an essay by a mother who kept spreadsheets of every last little thing her infant daughter did, from quality of poop to how attentive she seemed when her parents read issues of Popular Science to her. After “quantifying” her child thusly, the author pressed her pediatrician to give her daughter some kind of score. 

In response, he told her she needed to chill out. (Peace be upon you wherever you are, unnamed colleague.) This does not stop her from congratulating herself for giving the best kind of attention to her kid, in contrast to other mothers she describes in the piece.

Stop trying to optimize your children, parents of America! And stop telling them how to, everyone else.

Obviously, we all want our children to grow and succeed and flourish. We want them to be healthy and happy, and strive to give them all we can, in order to make those things happen. Obsessing and tracking and monitoring are inextricably linked to parenting, certainly in today’s society.

But speaking as both a pediatrician and a parent, kids love nothing more than to take our expectations and dance giddily upon them until nothing is left but a fine dust. Scrutinizing every time they whimper or pass gas will not guarantee admission to Princeton, and a vast number of people wouldn’t be happy there anyway. We need to stop acting as though children require a prospectus, both for their sake and our own. It is neither good for children nor effective to maximize arbitrary factors in search of some perfect outcome measure.

Love your kids. Feed them a healthy diet. Encourage them to exercise and socialize, read and play. If immediately after they’re born they lose a little weight, maybe your provider will tell you to keep track of their feeding and pooping for a short time. But then let it go.

But skip the spreadsheets and the newfangled bottles.