When I was pregnant and having just one baby seemed daunting, I asked a friend with three children how she managed. She said something along the lines of “get comfortable with chaos,” because very young children are unpredictable. But now there is a new set of apps that attempt to cut through the chaos and make your baby seem like an orderly, data-driven creature. “By gathering information on your kid's poop, sleep, and eating schedules, the idea goes, you can engineer a happier, healthier baby,” Fast Company’s Rebecca Greenfield writes.
There’s Owlet, which allows you to monitor your baby’s breathing, oxygen levels and temperature from your iPhone. Mimo tracks your infant’s respiration, body position, and activity level. Sproutling goes further, tracking things like the ambient light level and the temperature of the room the baby is sleeping in.
In theory, all this baby monitoring makes sense (it certainly helped Slate contributor Amy Webb). But in practice, it would make most new parents insane. One woman Greenfield interviewed for her piece tracked all of her daughter’s naps and nighttime sleeping patterns in the hopes of getting her to sleep better—and it didn’t help at all. That’s because sometimes babies are “abnormal” but not unhealthy, and no amount of quantifying will make them sleep the hours you want them to sleep. Instead of putting a new parent’s mind at ease, all this info could make them more anxious that their baby is not sleeping the “right” way.
The Fast Company piece compares the new baby-monitoring apps to adult trackers like Fitbit and Jawbone, but adults are not changing rapidly the way that babies are. Every baby book and pediatrician will tell you that in the first year of their lives, babies are constantly morphing their sleeping and eating patterns, and not always in predictable ways. This is called development, and it really shouldn’t be seen as a problem to conquer, much as I understand the desperate desire for sleep and order.
And while these apps are ostensibly trying to help you figure out your baby, they may actually harm your ability to do so. As they get past those first larval months, if you’re actually paying attention to your baby’s emotional and physical cues, you can start to make sense of what they need, because in their own idiosyncratic ways, they’re often telling you. But if you’re relying on an app to tell you when, according to whatever algorithm, your baby is hungry or tired, you will likely miss your baby’s own language—the way she motions with her hands when she’s ready to eat or fusses in a particular way when it’s time for sleep.
The one caveat here is with parents who are worried about SIDS, who are interested in these apps to make sure their kids are still breathing while they’re asleep. As Mother Jones co-editor Clara Jeffery pointed out on Twitter, to new parents, especially ones whose babies are at an increased risk for SIDS, these apps can be a godsend. But there’s a world of difference between using technology to make sure your kid is still alive and using technology to try to force your baby into becoming a perfect napper and eater. The latter assumes an amount of rationality and predictability that’s not always there. Getting comfortable with chaos is a whole lot easier—and I bet leads to better results.