Socks that record heart rate and cots that mimic the womb might promise parents peace of mind but is the data given to tech firms a fair exchange?
You dont need to spend much time in the presence of a small child and an iPhone to feel a little disconcerted. One-year-olds hypnotised by creepy Baby Shark ephemera on YouTube; two-year-olds who can swipe before they can talk; my own five-year-old trying to pause me when he goes to the loo. When can I get a phone? he asks. His cousin has a phone, he likes to point out. She is four.
There is a small, fragile window when a child has no compulsion towards digital technology. Jenny, zero, has no idea what a phone is. Jenny is a baby. More than 1m neural connections are being made in her brain each second, but, at 10 weeks old, she cant yet see the full colour spectrum or distinguish objects in perspective.
Yet her cocooned life has been substantially mediated by technology. A few weeks before Jenny was born, her mother, Aoife, downloaded a free breastfeeding and baby tracker app called Feed Baby and began playing around with it. The developer, Penguin Apps, describes it as the only app you will need to care for your little one. It has been downloaded more than 1m times.
Before she had recognised her mothers scent or gripped her finger, Jenny was emitting a rich stream of data. Its really, really simple, Aoife explains from her home in County Kilkenny, Ireland. You set up your baby, you say when your due date was and when they were born. You can track when youve fed. If youre breastfeeding, what side youve breastfed on and for how long. If youre bottle feeding, how much formula they took. You can track a nappy, what was in the nappy. You can track sleep. If youre giving medicine, how much medicine you give. You can track growth, you can track length and weight, teeth, baths. You can track everything.
Jenny is part of a generation whose entire lives will be quantified sometimes all the way from conception, thanks to fertility tracking apps such as Kindara and Clue. Aoife has graphs that show her how long Jenny has slept and how regular her nappy events were. She used Feed Baby compulsively following its cues, ignoring its ads until one day in January, when she had a revelation. I was using this app so I would stop being so anxious, but the level of information it was giving me was making me way more anxious. As soon as I stopped using it, my confidence in my parenting abilities increased drastically.
Babytech is not something that people without babies think much about, but that doesnt mean tech people arent thinking about it: the app stores are full of products with names such as Baby Manager and Glow Baby Newborn Tracker. At the Baby Show (the UKs leading baby and pregnancy expo, which takes places in London and Birmingham), tech companies that specialise in tracking devices and wearables vie for space with more traditional brands such as the bottle manufacturer Tommee Tippee.
The events manager, Susanne Rauberger, argues that technology not only helps parents feel as connected to their baby as possible, but also provides reassurance and peace of mind. Whereas previously we would have got this more from family and friends, we are using whatever tech we can, she says. Its incredible to see how fast it has developed over the past five years.
Among the products on show this year is Bluebell, a waterproof monitor that was developed by two former healthcare management consultants and a former NHS data analyst. It relays information (temperature, heart rate and so on) to a small screen that a parent wears on their wrist, alerting the wearer if the babys breathing rate falls, or if he or she rolls on to their front. It will go on sale for 299.
Also exhibiting is the latest version of Owlet, a baby sock that measures temperature, heart rate, oxygen saturation and movement. It has already become a must-have item among Hollywood parents: actor Jessica Alba has revealed that, before buying the stocking for her youngest child, she had been getting up to listen to his breathing as often as every hour.
Technology has definitely become a major theme in parenting, everything from software to hardware to data to artificial intelligence, says Owlets CEO, Utah-based father-of-three Kurt Workman. Across the spectrum, investors are really keen to find companies that solve pain points. Forbes included Owlet on its list of the next billion-dollar startups in 2016; Workman has raised about $50m (39m) in venture capital. Meanwhile, a Californian firm called Hatch Baby, which makes smart changing mats, has received an undisclosed investment from Amazons Alexa fund (Amazon is the worlds largest marketplace for baby products). Another parenting solutions company in the same state, Happiest Baby, has announced $23m in funding for Snoo, a baby bed that claims to replicate conditions in the womb and promises to lull your baby into sleeping more.
It is a marketing truism that anxious people make great consumers and there are few more anxious cohorts than new parents. There is nothing more important to me than my children. And there is no more important role in society than parent, says Workman. But you go through more training to get a drivers licence than you do to become a parent. Overnight, youre a doctor and a nurse and a sleep trainer and a teacher. On top of parents being undereducated for the task, you also have a lot of risk. Thats an opportunity for technology.
Infant mortality rates have plummeted in the past century, but broader demographic trends mean parents now have fewer children, later in life and live farther from their families. It is increasingly common for first-time mothers and fathers to hold their newborn and realise they have never done anything like it before. Where would we turn but to our phones?
Mothers are feeling increasingly responsible for the success of their families in an increasingly precarious world, says Emily Chivers Yochim, the co-author of Mothering Through Precarity, a study of mothers phone use in the rust belt of Pennsylvania. We are in a broad political-economic-social-cultural wave in which the state becomes more responsible for corporate wellbeing, and less responsible for the wellbeing of its citizens. It feels like things could fall apart at any minute. Your finances can fall apart, your house can fall apart, you have to work really hard to make sure your kids get the best education and digital media, phones in particular, step in to assuage that feeling.
Unsurprisingly, the mothers she observed turned to Google and Facebook first for questions such as: Am I feeding the baby correctly? and: What is this rash? To some extent, these are the modern equivalent of leaning over the garden fence or gossiping at the market. But Yochim believes the omnipresence of our phones changes the nature of these quotidian anxieties. We call it the digital mundane, the idea that the digital is entering into your life even when youre not asking for it. Its one thing to pick up a parenting magazine for advice, say, and another thing for the advice to be constantly available in your pocket.
Another difference is that the answers with which Google and Facebook provide us are customised according to the private worries we feed into them. Were under constant surveillance. All this data is picked up and fed back into a circuit thats all about shaping our desires toward capital, commercial interest.
It is worth stressing that the projections of Owlets future value are not based on the assumption that Workman will sell lots of 269 socks; they are based on the value of the data the socks will extract: oxygen levels, heart rate, geolocation, the lot. I ask Workman why parents should trust him with all that data. You know, thats a great question, he says. Honestly? Around data, I am not the expert on how and where this is stored. Apparently, I would have to talk to one of his data guys about that. However, Workman does emphasise that the video data from the baby monitor is not stored on the cloud, and that Owlet puts a lot of effort into making sure data stays protected and anonymous.
He also hits back at some of the negativity around data at the moment. Generally, its a really wonderful thing thats helping us understand more about infant health, he says. We can create information about how a babys doing in the home and then use that data to run machine-learning and build artificial intelligence. In some research studies, we can see when a babys getting sick before Mum and Dad notice. And we have probably the largest dataset of sleep ever collected. Were starting to develop algorithms that can tell you the best time to put baby down for a nap. We can give parents the option to integrate that data with their sleep coach to provide a more automated care cycle.