By Richard Godwin, The Guardian | March 2, 2019

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 don’t 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 can’t 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 mother’s scent or gripped her finger, Jenny was emitting a rich stream of data. “It’s 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 you’ve fed. If you’re breastfeeding, what side you’ve breastfed on and for how long. If you’re bottle feeding, how much formula they took. You can track a nappy, what was in the nappy. You can track sleep. If you’re 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 doesn’t mean tech people aren’t 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 UK’s 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 event’s 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. “It’s 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 baby’s 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 Owlet’s 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 Amazon’s Alexa fund (Amazon is the world’s 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 driver’s licence than you do to become a parent. Overnight, you’re 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. That’s 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 you’re not asking for it. It’s 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. “We’re under constant surveillance. All this data is picked up and fed back into a circuit that’s all about shaping our desires toward capital, commercial interest.”

It is worth stressing that the projections of Owlet’s 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, that’s 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, it’s a really wonderful thing that’s helping us understand more about infant health,” he says. “We can create information about how a baby’s 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 baby’s getting sick before Mum and Dad notice. And we have probably the largest dataset of sleep ever collected. We’re 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.”

Composite of baby in nappy with words about crying, sleep, etc

Does he worry about undermining parents’ ability to make their own judgments? “Do you have kids?” he shoots back. I have one. “I don’t know if you’ve ever had one of those nights where your baby has a fever and you’re trying to decide whether to take him to hospital or to wait until the morning.” He tells me that 90% of infant emergency room visits in the US are unnecessary; in Utah, at least, that sets you back about $1,000. “The argument that somehow the only thing we need is intuition from the parents – well, the data suggests we need to improve that.”

There is little doubt that this technology can be helpful – life-saving, even. Mary Wahl, a data scientist at Microsoft, lives in Los Angeles with her partner, Nick, and their newborn, Isaac. She tried using the Owlet sock on Isaac, but it kept falling off; she considers it an expensive mistake. But she does use an app called GrowBaby to keep track of feeds, sleeps and medicine, and says digital technology has helped “fill the gaps” in her parenting knowledge. “We only recently moved here from Boston, so we don’t have any family in this area and we don’t have parent friends yet. My parents are in their late 60s/early 70s anyway, and a lot of the information they had for parenting is no longer accurate. But we’ve been able to pick up a lot from YouTube videos.”

She is not particularly concerned about the data she is feeding into GrowBaby. “I work in artificial intelligence. The idea of offering a product for free so you can built up a dataset that has commercial value is not anything new in my industry. For me, it’s a worthwhile trade-off in the same way that using Facebook or YouTube has been worthwhile.” But she is concerned about the way that apps “gamify” parenting. “That’s a tendency in apps that try to build loyal usage. GrowBaby already has daily updates based on how many hours you’ve logged. I think that could push somebody to think more hours is better, more ounces is better, things that maybe would not have occurred to them to track so closely.”

Even if designers have the best intentions, they can’t predict the way their tech will be used. Aisling O’Kane, a researcher in human-computer interaction at the University of Bristol, was part of a team that conducted an in-depth study of six British babies hooked up to Owlet socks when the device was introduced in 2016. “It’s hard to say categorically whether it’s good or it’s bad,” she says. “But it is not a neutral device.”

The Owlet changed the type of information parents gathered about their children, which changed the way they interacted with them. Some became obsessively engaged in the data, O’Kane says, “just collecting data for its own sake”. Some devised games based around the Owlet – trying to guess what the baby’s heart rate was, based on how much it was wriggling, for example. One couple “censored” the data, refusing to allow the child’s grandparents access to the app. There were moments where it came in extremely handy: monitoring a child after a vaccination, say, or quelling the midnight panic that follows a choking fit. But while the information helped ease “situational anxiety”, it had different effects on what you could call ambient anxiety.

Even if you have qualms about turning your baby into a Tamagotchi, it’s hard to argue against tech that may save a life

“What you’ve done with the Owlet is create a digital version of your child,” says O’Kane. “One of the mothers suffered from postpartum anxiety and she always used to get up in the middle of the night and put her hand on her baby to check that he was breathing. Once we gave her the Owlet, she was happy to tell us she wasn’t doing that any more – she was just checking her phone. And she saw that as a positive. I don’t know if we would interpret it as that positive. Proximity and touch in the first few months of life is incredibly important.”

Yochim feels that parents – particularly mothers – should be given a break when it comes to screen time; our phones have scores of functions, many of them beneficial. “But I also think that we all need to be really cognisant of the way that digital culture is designed to keep us tethered all the time,” she says. “We trade our data for a sense of control, but we’re never actually going to have control. Life isn’t like that. And, in trading that, we trade our ability to be in unmediated relationships with our kids. The relationship becomes embedded in consumer corporate culture.”

But the advance of technology seems implacable. Even if you have qualms about turning your child into a real-life Tamagotchi, it is hard to make an argument for not buying a product that may save your child’s life. No one wants to make an unnecessary visit to A&E if they can help it – and it is not in the NHS’s interest, either. This is part of the logic driving the doctors who developed the Bluebell monitor.

“I used to report a lot of health metrics for the NHS – SIDS [sudden infant death syndrome], postnatal depression, obesity – so I had a fairly good understanding of these issues,” says Romi Mathews, one of the co-founders of the device. And when I became a dad – I didn’t realise that parenting would be so difficult. My parents are in India, I had limited support from family and friends. Then my son, he was born with eczema and he had allergies, so we had a lot of difficult challenges with being first-time parents.”

He returned to work after two weeks and bought his wife a baby monitor. “But the traditional audio-media monitor is a very inconvenient solution. You carry this big device with you around the house, the battery dies in a few hours, then you have these long wires.”

I can’t help smiling when he says “traditional” monitor. Baby monitors have been widely used for only a decade or so. My partner and I managed without one; so did every generation of humans before us. But he doesn’t catch my drift. “The baby is the most precious thing,” he says. “You always want to make sure the baby’s fine.”

As for whether this technology adds to parents’ anxieties, he points out that the Bluebell is the only wearable that extends the monitoring to the mother: the wristband tracks parents’ sleep and includes a pedometer to measure movement. “I was thinking about my wife as well, because mums are equally important,” he says. “One in four mothers suffer from depression, and about 65% to 70% of mums gain weight after birth. I used to work on all these figures when I was in the NHS. I was thinking, if there was a solution that could track the mother and the baby as well – wouldn’t that be a much greater solution?”

He doesn’t specify how or why the wristband may help with weight gain. But he does tell me that the team can combine all the data from Bluebell with machine learning and expert medical advice to provide personalised advice to each parent. I say it sounds very much like he is trying to programme parents to be better parents, babies to be better babies, patients to be better patients. “Yeah!” he says. Nevertheless, he is wary of making unsubstantiated claims: he stresses that Bluebell is a consumer device, not a medical one.

In her sleep-haunted early weeks of motherhood, Aoife found that her “digital baby” was providing her with more questions than answers. There were discrepancies: one screen would tell her Jenny had slept for 20 hours; another would say 12 hours. While the app she was using didn’t set targets, some information was displayed in a red font. “It always made me wonder if they were trying to indicate that there was something to be concerned about, which didn’t help with any anxiety I had.” She had little idea what to do with the information the app was giving her.

“I would go: ‘Oh, the length of time she’s sleeping is declining, is she getting enough sleep?’ Then I’d Google it: ‘My eight-week-old is sleeping 16 hours a day, is this normal?’ I would then look for other sources. The data from the app was making me question things: ‘Is this right? Is this not right?’”

She also felt compelled to feed her phone data, feeling intense pangs when she neglected it. “Sometimes I got my breastfeed pillow, settled Jenny down and then I wouldn’t be able to find my phone. I would prioritise finding my phone, so I could put the information in the app, before I would feed Jenny. That makes me feel sick to my stomach now.”

Aoife ended up going cold turkey after her first visit to a parenting group. Embarrassed to whip out her phone in front of the other parents, she let Jenny eat and sleep without tracking it. “And, unsurprisingly, she survived just fine!” Driving home, she resolved to get rid of the app. “Now, I’ll be feeding her and look down and she’s just looking up at me, smiling. If I was on my phone, I would be missing that.”

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