Consumers have quickly grown accustomed to collecting data on just about anything; from how many steps they walk each day, to their daily calorie consumption and the number of people who follow their online social media updates. In a society that likes to keep track of the finer details, it is natural to expand that habit to parenting. Thus the Internet of Things has entered the world of gaga-goo-goo, with soft toys, baby grows and diapers. Monitoring devices for infants is still a nascent market, but it is growing at an impressive rate.
“Compared to the consumer electronics industry, there are just not a lot of advancements in technology for parents, and we feel that they’re an underserved, and even overlooked, demographic that the industry can be doing much, much more for”, said Dulcie Madden, co-founder and CEO of Mimo, a market leader in baby monitoring technology. “There’s a lot of buzz around connected products, and the market for baby wearables is only going to grow as tech improves and as category awareness increases. 83 percent of new mums are Millennials, and today’s parents are a whole new generation – they’re data-driven and they’re connected, spending a lot more time on their smartphones than the previous generation. When it comes to parenting, they’re looking for solutions that fit into their lives.”
Parenting is a daunting task, as illustrated by the countless books, forums and websites that try to help the process in some way. Particularly for first timers, the challenge of keeping their delicate, precious newborn alive in that first year, while also being incredibly sleep-deprived, is unnerving. To help ease the formidable pressure, there is an innovative range of tools available for parents: baby grows that measure body temperature, oxygen levels and movement; smart socks; and even diapers that test urine for infections and kidney problems.
of new mothers are Millennials
“Mimo is building a series of smart nursery products around sleeping, activity, mobility and feeding, that are all built on one easy-to-use platform and that all cater around one mission: to help households – babies and parents – sleep more and sleep better”, said Madden. “And that’s huge; sleep is so important for babies, and it’s priceless for parents. Many parents, especially parents of ‘preemies’ [premature infants], are nervous about bringing their babies home from the hospital for the first time, and worry when putting their babies to sleep at night. Are they breathing? Should they be this quiet? Are they rolling over onto their stomachs? It’s nerve wracking, but we are able to use technology and data to help reassure parents that their little ones are doing well.”
Although the idea of an extra layer of protection can seem miraculous to many parents, there is perhaps an overestimation of what these products can actually achieve. “Parents might be misled, because of the marketing, in thinking [the products] are going to be beneficial in some way to the health of the baby”, said Dr David King, a clinical lecturer in paediatrics at the University of Sheffield. “The obvious thing that a lot of parents worry about is sudden death syndrome; there are lots of reasons why that happens and understandably parents get quite anxious about it, and so they might think that, if they buy all these devices, then the baby will be safe, but there’s no evidence that that’s the case at all.”
Another potential issue is the possibility parents may disregard medical advice as a result of this false sense of security. For example, putting a baby on his or her back when they go to sleep can reduce the chance of sudden death syndrome by up to 90 percent. “But if the parents find that the baby doesn’t sleep well on its back and they find it difficult to keep them on their back, they might think that if they have a device like this, they can put them on their front and they’ll be safe – whereas that wouldn’t be the case”, said Dr King. “So you can see how it might make [parents] disregard other sensible, evidence-based, proven advice, which helps you keep your baby safe – that would be one of my concerns.”
Then there is the question of what parents can actually do with all the information they accumulate. Wearable devices and mobile apps now enable them to capture the exact amount of time their infant sleeps each day, how often the child urinates, defecates, their medicine intake, vaccinations, bath times, and feeds. Some argue that, by collecting all this data, patterns begin to emerge that can make parenting more manageable, but the truth is babies are simply unpredictable. Patterns may emerge for some, but, even when they do, things can change on a daily basis. The slightest alteration in environment can disrupt that holy schedule, while sniffles, teething and fevers – which are common – can turn them completely upside down.
As for looking out for the abnormal or tell-tale signs that something is amiss, it is almost impossible to recognise such an occurrence from the streams of numbers provided by smartphone apps and monitoring devices. Unless one is a medical professional, knowing what to look out for in terms of respiratory rate or oxygen levels is no simple task. For example, oxygen saturation levels in healthy babies vary all the time, but many may misconstrue these fluctuations as a dire problem. The likelihood parents will worry unduly is increased by the endless data at their disposal. Then there is the possibility of a break in the wireless connection, or a baby’s sock coming off during slumber, or any number of other ‘problems’ that could send parents into a blind panic without any need.
A comfort nonetheless
At present, no studies have been completed to prove the remedial effectiveness of monitoring devices on infants, and there is no evidence to support the idea that they can in fact keep a child safe. As Dr King explained, these products are not medical devices, and it is important for manufacturers to clearly state so on their products or at the point of sale.
That said, wearable technology for babies is so nascent that one can hope comprehensive studies, technological developments and data simplification are just around the corner. Mimo is already leading the way with such advances, having collected more sleep data than any other firm; it is currently using this to create innovative sleep training programmes.
Moreover, the information offered by smart wearables can be extremely comforting for parents who are at work or away while a babysitter or family member takes over responsibility for their child; having this connection and some level of control can be invaluable. Technology can help keep track of milk consumption and feeds during the weeks and months of sleeplessness when everything becomes a blur. These devices can also give anxious new parents confidence they are doing everything in their power to protect their child: in short, they can offer reassurance. And when undertaking such a momentous and life-changing task as parenting, reassurance is priceless. Judging by this rapidly expanding market – and despite the product waiting lists, steep price tags, and sometimes-laborious data-entry – many others think so too.