Data deluge feeds paranoia parenting

baby with monitor

Technological leaps have made it easier than ever to monitor a baby, but that might not necessarily be a good thing.


We live in the big data era. Apps monitor how much we exercise, eat and sleep. Our moods and productivity can be quantified into neat streams of data that feed master spreadsheets, allowing us to analyze, strategize and optimize our lives. And as new parents know, this data-driven life isn’t just for adults anymore.

Every few days, I get an e-mail alerting me to the newest baby product that claims to take the guesswork, fear and worry out of raising a child. If money is no object, today’s parents can design a nursery that resembles an at-home intensive care unit.  Sheets can monitor a baby’s breathing rate and send alerts to a parent’s phone if the baby is breathing fast or slow, or stops breathing completely. Diapers test urine for signs of dehydration, kidney problems, urinary tract infections and even diabetes. Booties track a baby’s heart rate and oxygen levels.  And this sweet little organic turtle onesie monitors breathing, temperature, body position and activity level. At-home fetal dopplers let you start eavesdropping on your baby before he’s even born.

This morning, an e-mail announced that I can now pre-order the Sproutling, a cozy ankle band that tracks a baby’s heart rate, skin temperature and movements. “Say your baby is sleeping and you just want to know if his tiny little heart is beating,” a Sproutling video ad says. “It’s perfectly normal. You’re a parent. Well, we can help with that.” According to the ad, the monitor can also tell you whether your baby wakes up happy or cranky, if the baby’s room is too noisy and when the baby is about to wake up.

I have no first-hand experience with the Sproutling or any other techie baby wearable. Baby V’s room is close enough to mine that I rely on my eyes and ears (and sometimes nose) to get a sense of how she’s doing. But I also understand the impulse to collect every little bit of data available and try to make sense of it. A device that calculates sleep patterns and tells me to put Baby V to bed 20 minutes earlier every night? Who wouldn’t want that? One that warns me of a nascent breathing problem? Yes please.

These gadgets appeal because they promise to take the guesswork out of raising a baby. But parents should be aware that data are only as good as the analysis — a fact that many scientists across lots of disciplines are well aware of. A deluge of data is useless on its own. Smart, rational analyses mine that information for useful kernels. And that’s where I’m concerned that these new baby apps fall short. It’s not clear how well they transform their data into useful information.

What’s more, these devices can fail or send confusing messages, as pediatrician Claire McCarthy of Boston Children’s Hospital points out. As tempting as it may be for a parent to spend $300 on a gadget for peace of mind, those devices can’t guarantee that nothing terrible will happen. Case in point: The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has never approved a baby product to reduce the risk of sudden infant death syndrome.

Aside from the possibility of these devices not working as they claim, there’s another reason to steer clear. These devices come with a potentially dangerous side effect: Despite their promises of “peace of mind,” these products may actually make parents more anxious. And anxious parents obsessed with the numbers and patterns flashing on their phones may miss some of the real life, wiggly messages their babies send. So for now, I’m trying to avoid a data-driven life for Baby V. Instead, I’m focusing on her real life.


Laura Sanders

Laura Sanders is the neuroscience writer. She holds a Ph.D. in molecular biology from the University of Southern California.

More Stories from Science News on Health & Medicine

From the Nature Index

Paid Content