By Expert Contributor Katie Kovaleski
Is Knowledge Really Power When It Comes To Parenting?
WSJ recently featured an article in their “Venture Capitalist Dispatch” blog titled The ‘Quantified Baby’: Rest Devices Aims to Popularize Wearable Infant Monitor.” The blog post described a new wearable physiological baby-monitoring device that is set to hit markets in 2014. This wearable device is not the first prototype of it’s kind; a similar wearable anklet has also been designed and will be taken to market sometime in the near future. The development of these types of devices provides a great opportunity and forum for questioning technology when it comes to parenting and babies. It allows the question to be asked, is knowledge really power when it comes to parenting?
My reaction and perspective is multi faceted. As a certified child sleep consultant and a mental health therapist I see the potential sleep disruptions and issues that could arise as well as the potential benefits. My view is twofold: I see the potential harm as a sleep consultant whose goal is to help children learn to sleep, while as a therapist I also see how helpful this could be to a parent’s well-being and peace of mind. As a professional woman who loves to learn, I am more than interested and supportive of the potential impact that proper analyzing of this data could produce. It is my hope that all of those facets can provide a well-rounded approach to critiquing this type of technology.
First things first, what IS this thing and what is its purpose?
The device has been described as “a baby sleep shirt, or “onesie,” that comes equipped with sensors that record data about a baby’s position in bed, body temperature, levels of restlessness, and respiration as they sleep, then transmit that data to a parent’s or caretaker’s smart-phone.” (Kolodny, 2013) Essentially, this device provides constant monitoring for your child’s basic physiological functions and sends alerts to your smart-phone when anything deviates from the norm.
Could this be useful?
The short answer, from a Certified Child Sleep Consultant, Life Coach and a Dual Master’s of Counseling holder is…maybe. I’ve heard and understand why a lot of initial reactions to devices like these are, “Seriously? This is ridiculous and unnecessary and will create a culture of parenting that’s even more paranoid and neurotic than it already is.” That could very well be true but opinions aside, there is one inevitable that should be the basis for every objective line of thought when it comes to devices like these- technology is here to stay.
My first thought on critiquing this device is to understand the inevitable- as I mentioned, technology is here to stay and will continue to grow and develop in ways we can’t even fathom. Babies will continue to be born and as a constantly growing demographic they are the perfect target market for new innovative devices. In the words of one of the onesie investors “babies are big business.” (Kolodny, 2013)
Simultaneously, I’m also confounded with my own inevitable… my concern is for my clients and their babies, I aim to help them by meeting them where they are and for some people that might soon mean working with onesie monitors. Regardless if my inclination is that it seems over the top or if I am a fan because the research study implications for things like SIDS could be enormous, I must accept that these types of developments will continue. In order to provide my clients with the best level of understanding, care and service I have to stay on top of these developments and see how they can best be used.
Thoughts from a Sleep Consultant
From a sleep perspective devices like these are very disconcerting. The process of helping your child learn to sleep is contingent upon a combination of knowledge, intuition and observation. These devices have claimed that with a compilation of data they can predict when your child will sleep and for how long. Chris Bruce, CEO of Sproutling, the company that created the anklet device, stated that a perk of the device is “knowing when your child is going to take a nap and how long it will last.” (Higginbotham, 2013)
While my initial reaction is doubtful of that statement, analyzing physiological data could show patterns that are precursors to your child falling asleep. I’m guessing they credit this prediction with the monitoring of increased restlessness, change in heart rate etc. Those are educated guesses as the article and creator failed to explain exactly how the device will accomplish such a prediction. While the device might make predictions based on accumulating data it seems to have failed to take into account a few simple things.
One of those is that just because your child is napping at a certain time doesn’t mean they should be. This device will track patterns; it doesn’t take into account that those patterns might not be biologically beneficial for your child’s sleep hygiene. Within the first year of life, sleep patterns change immensely and aiming for certain random times without taking into account how quickly they could change will be counter-productive in sleep training your child. I would not rely on this or any similar device to tell when your child should be or will be sleeping. This device will track patterns based on physiological data. It is not a sleep genie. Just like with all of the data it collects, before using it to dictate health or sleep, consult a professional to make sure those predictions are on point with what is most beneficial for your child.
Education is Key
As a sleep consultant, I know that during times of change, especially during sleep training, parents tend to over-think things and can feel quite helpless. I am an advocate of anything that helps parents feel adequate and prepared. However, it is imperative that proper education be a part of that preparedness.
For example, if I had a client who was sleep training their child and they wanted to use this device, I would advocate it with the use of a video monitor and some sleep training education. This device can measure restlessness, so if your child is learning to sleep through the night and they are more or even less restless than usual, you could be alerted. But this is a case where there is nothing to fear. If you have been properly educated or have been using a sleep consultant, you would know that sleep cycles for babies are very short, usually only 30 minutes. Babies will experience a natural arousal from sleep cycle to sleep cycle and these arousals can change or appear different when children are being sleep trained and are learning to self soothe through the arousals. A quick check of the video monitor after you have been alerted would reassure you that all is well.
I would recommend that people who are using this device check with a sleep consultant and their pediatrician to understand the natural developmental milestones their baby will experience and the normal symptoms their baby is likely to display during these times of change. This device could be a great addition in gaining insight into your child’s well-being but should be used with discretion and not as an alternative to parental education.
Knowledge is power…or is it?
One growing concern is that the constant access to your child’s inner workings, previously only typically monitored through doctor’s visits, will create a whole new breed of web-MD-fueled parental paranoia. Is that a possibility? Definitely. However, alerts are only sent to a smart-phone when the device detects something unusual in the baby’s monitor readings. In some ways, it might help parents rest easier, knowing that their baby is being constantly monitored. But that line of thought brings up a whole slew of different questions and concerns.
My first concern is pretty basic: batteries die. However the inner workings of this device operate, one thing is true--it relies on a human to charge it or batteries to fuel it. Both of those things are fallible, especially when the charging relies on sleep- deprived parents.
My second concern is about parental intuition and the potential this device has to numb those senses. What happens when the child outgrows the device and the parents have become stumped as to how to identify the symptoms their child displays? This is a concern about developing a dependency on technology to identify what is happening with your own child. A child’s early months and first year is a prime time for parents to hone and strengthen every primal sense they have. With a device doing all the paying attention for you, there isn’t much room or time to sharpen those intuitive tools.
The Flip Side
On the flip side I have heard older generations (I won’t name names…cough, cough, Mom and Grandma) have these same concerns and responses to other baby devices that most people now consider a nursery staple. The video monitor once garnered a lot of criticism and flack for being too invasive and was believed to impair a parent’s quality of sleep because they would be constantly watching it at night, diligently keeping an eye on their baby’s every move. It has since been accepted and widely used as a helpful tool especially for sleep training.
The biggest plus to me are the research implications for this device. Chris Bruce is excited about the potential and noted “I think as this gets more prevalent that we are going to have a lot of new insights that we’ve never had before because quite frankly, there just is not a lot of sensory data about children from early on…As this data grows I think we are going to learn a lot of interesting things especially around sleep…hopefully derive some actually new insights about how to better raise our kids.” (Higginbotham, 2013).
Personally speaking, any device that could alert me if my baby stops breathing is a winner in my book. There could be implications for the research on SIDS that are enormous. Devices like these compile and store data that can be sent back to researchers. As with a lot of scientific studies and breakthroughs- “people started tracking data to sort of analyze a specific problem and in doing so what they surfaced were a lot of these other insights that they had no idea were there.” (Higginbotham, 2013) The sky is the limit as far as what the data could be used for and what types of baby related issues and topics could come to light.
In the end…
As with most things in life, the simplest answer is typically the best one. My answer? Balance is the key. Find the balance by incorporating technology into parenting, not by turning parenting into a technology.
Higginbotham, S. (2013, april 18). Podcast: How the internet of things may make parents less worries but more neurotic. Retrieved from http://gigaom.com/2013/04/18/podcast-how-the-internet-of-things-may-make-parents-less-worried-but-more-neurotic/
Kolodny, L. (2013, November 21). The ‘quantified baby’: Rest devices aims to popularize wearable infant monitor. Retrieved from http://blogs.wsj.com/venturecapital/2013/11/21/rest-devices-raises-1-3m-to-popularize-its-wearable-baby-monitor/