Laura June is a freelance writer and editor. She was a founding features editor of the Verge, a Web site about technology and culture.
Parenting today, I learned when I had my first child 16 months ago, reaps many benefits from the digital age. I order most of my diapers and supplies from Amazon, and they show up a day later. No more panicked night trips to the store. The Internet has made the pricing of all sorts of items very competitive. And I have instant digital access to my daughter’s medical records, immunizations and weight charts.
It’s tempting, then, to make the mental leap from “Hey, I can order diapers whenever I need them!” to “Technology can solve all of our problems!” And it’s just this kind of utopian thinking — that new gadgets can somehow soothe many of the most long-standing parenting problems and anxieties — that seems to be behind the latest wave of high-tech baby products that bring the “Internet of Things” into the nursery.
The result? Countless efforts to improve upon what is already good enough. Instead of diapers that leak less, companies create diapers with wireless-enabled moisture sensors or even those that — at a price 30 to 40 percent more than traditional disposable diapers — will test your baby’s urine for all sorts of health indicators. There’s the Baby Gigl, a bottle sleeve that monitors how much your baby drinks and tracks it in an app, alerts you if the bottle is clogged (though I would guess your baby would be the first to let you know that), and signals the proper angle to hold the bottle so your baby doesn’t gulp too much air, promising that this “prevents colic.” The sleeve, which will cost around $100 whenever it hits the retail market, compared with $6 or $7 for the low-tech glass bottles that used to be priciest you could buy, is made to fit larger-than-normal bottles, and it needs three batteries to run. Then there’s the Pacif-i electronic pacifier and the Intel Smart Clip, which alerts you when you forget your baby in the car. These gadgets managed to drum up plenty of press coverage when they were shown off at the Consumer Electronics Show in January.
The merger of the Internet of Things with baby gear — or the Internet of Babies — is not a positive development. The mind-set of a first-time parent can be summed up as: terror. When you leave the hospital with a fragile newborn, all the horrible “what if?” scenarios suddenly seem very likely, and parenting books either don’t go far enough in calming those fears or they exacerbate them, naming hundreds of ailments your baby will almost certainly never suffer from. So you worry. In the first few weeks of our daughter’s life, her father and I fretted about whether her room was too cold or too hot, whether she was getting enough to eat, whether she had jaundice, whether she was wetting enough diapers (a lack of urine is a sign of jaundice!), whether she was pooping enough, whether the color and consistency of the poop was good or bad, whether she was breathing oddly. When she slept loudly, we worried that she wasn’t sleeping well; when she slept silently, we wondered if she had died.
The greatest source of stress, though, was SIDS, sudden infant death syndrome, which, for reasons unknown, kills about 3,500 sleeping babies under the age of 1 in the United States each year, making it the No. 1 cause of death for infants between 1 month and 1 year old. The numbers have been halved since the 1994 introduction of the “Back to Sleep” campaign by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD), which laid out a few simple guidelines to make sudden death less likely. Parents are now routinely told by doctors and nurses to put their babies to sleep on their backs; don’t use blankets or pillows; don’t leave toys in the crib; make sure the room the baby sleeps in isn’t too hot. Of course, a nefarious range of high-tech baby products has emerged to stoke these fears. New parents, after all, are easy targets.
Several manufacturers have devised pads to be placed under a sleeping baby to monitor his movements and alert you if he hasn’t moved for a while. In November 2013, one of those companies, Angelcare, recalled 600,000 such monitors and offered “repair kits” after two infants died of strangulation on the monitor’s cords. (The Consumer Product Safety Commission counts seven deaths by strangulation on baby-monitor cords since 2002.) Angelcare still sells these monitors, presumably improved, and the market for high-tech baby sleep gear is more crowded than ever. The latest versions: The $299 Sproutling monitor, currently sold out, attaches to your baby’s ankle and tells you her heart rate, body temperature and movement patterns. The Owlet bootie, for $249, supposedly alerts you if your baby stops breathing. And the Little Lotus is a successful Kickstarter project for a $150 sleep swaddle that uses “NASA technology” to keep your baby’s body at the “perfect temp.”
For the sake of parents who would pay any price to find the perfect temperature for their babies, let’s be clear: There is no perfect temperature, not even for three hundred bucks. “About room temperature” will do, unless your baby has medical issues that require something more precise. What’s more, the NICHD, which writes the guidelines for reducing SIDS, says, “Do not use home heart or breathing monitors to reduce the risk of SIDS,” because “these baby monitors do not reduce or detect” it. The agency recommends that you keep anything that is not your baby or her pajamas out of the crib. To be clear, the government agency that creates safety guidelines for our children recommends not using these devices, and it further states that they “have not been tested for safety.”
It’s not just anxiety and fear leading this market, of course, and the problems these gadget-makers are trying to solve range from mundane annoyances to worst-case scenarios. We have wristbands to tell us how much (or how little) we walk, apps to remind us to water our plants, thermostats and smoke detectors connected to our WiFi networks. So why wouldn’t we want the same type of awareness of what our kids are up to? All of this, we think, makes us feel “connected” — to our families, our friends and our homes. In these early months of pregnancy and life, parents understandably think they can buy their way to easier days and safer nights. This is, sadly, an illusion.
We all know that as great as our smartphones are, there’s nothing worse than when the battery dies. A three-battery baby bottle that runs out of juice is annoying. But imagine a malfunctioning monitor, bleeping its alarm to tell you that your baby has stopped breathing, when in fact the only thing wrong is the Duracell.
All of this comes from a good place. We want to ensure the safety of our children. And as an avid lover of technology and what it’s capable of, I want that, too. But where these devices promise reassurance, they will deliver only increased anxiety. Let’s try not to make the first few months of parenting any more complicated than they need to be. Let’s leave the constant monitoring of our babies’ temperature and heart rate to the pros, and try to relax, just a little.
CORRECTION: This article originally reported that SIDS, or sudden infant death syndrome, is the No. 1 cause of infant deaths in the United States. In fact, in the first month of life, birth defects, low birth weight and maternal complications all cause more infant deaths. SIDS is the leading cause of death for babies between 1 month and 1 year old, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.