The Rise of Tech Nannies
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because when you’re a parent, every bit of help counts.
By Poornima Apte
Nicole Dean suffered from severe postpartum anxiety after her first baby, Grace, was born in 2014. She was convinced that if she fell asleep, she would wake up to find that her baby was not breathing. “I stayed awake for close to four days before my husband made me go to the doctor,” Dean, a resident of Claremont, New Hampshire, recalls.
When her second child, Henry, was born in 2017, Dean was ready. A device called the Owlet Smart Sock monitors little Henry’s heart rate and oxygen saturation while he sleeps and alerts Dean with a loud alarm if things go awry.
“The monitor’s website says very clearly that it does not prevent SIDS [sudden infant death syndrome] and is not quite medical grade,” Dean concedes. “But I find it to be accurate, and it helps me sleep peacefully at night.”
No technology should ever be solely relied upon nor should it take the place of common sense and engaged parenting.
Brad Mattarocci, general manager at Baby Trend
It’s precisely this valued parental currency, peace of mind, that is a key factor driving the increasing adoption of the “internet of things” (IoT) in products for baby. IoT is a catchall term for “smart” electronic devices that are connected to the internet through Bluetooth or Wi-Fi. They typically measure data for specific outcomes. The Owlet Smart Sock, for example, monitors heart rate, oxygen levels and other vitals, and parents view results through a custom app. And if the baby tech market at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas this past January is any indicator, this market is only expected to grow. Smart diaper sensors, cribs that soothe when baby cries, and temperature trackers are slowly flooding the market to allay the anxieties of frazzled parents. Growth is expected to be dizzying. Intel forecasts that the IoT market, of which baby products are a growing subset, will explode from 15 billion devices in 2015 to 200 billion in 2020.
Contributing to this impressive trend is Benjamin Lui, creator of BabbyCam, a smart baby monitor built on principles of deep learning and artificial intelligence. Frustrated by what Lui perceived as a lack of baby monitors on the market that could keep a closer watch on baby, Lui decided to develop one himself. His first experimental subject: his baby daughter, Elise. Using a large dataset of images of babies in different positions and moods, the BabbyCam recognizes when baby is missing from the crib and when she is flipped over, sleeping or crying. Baby Trend’s car seat chest clip has a sensor that detects the presence of baby. The custom app will alert the parent when he or she moves farther than a certain distance from the car seat. And the SNOO smart sleeper swaddles and rocks baby when crying and delivers gentle white noise, all of which can be a boon for sleep-deprived parents.
While these smart devices are meant to help parents, does all that data about oxygen levels, heart rate and sleep patterns actually increase anxiety through information overload? At first Dean did worry about this, but over time she has found that the Owlet has calmed her nerves. Lui says the data BabbyCam delivers about his baby’s sleep patterns helps him make better informed decisions — about when she might need a nap or not, for example.
Fears about an over-reliance on technology for bringing up baby might be misplaced, Lui says, as most parents recognize its limitations. “No technology should ever be solely relied upon nor should it take the place of common sense and engaged parenting,” cautions Brad Mattarocci, general manager at Baby Trend. Lui admits that these devices might increase helicopter parenting in instances where the parent is already predisposed toward the tendency, but he himself has learned to relax more after working with BabbyCam.
IoT devices gather endless amounts of data, so security and privacy concerns often come into play. In fact, says James Riseman, director of product marketing at PubNub, which controls the data and IoT interface for SNOO, security challenges might be one of the biggest stumbling blocks for larger-scale adoption of these technologies. SNOO, for one, makes sure that all data is thoroughly encrypted and that it is never shared. It’s always a good idea to read the documents that come with the device and find the terms and conditions for operation, advises lawyer Elizabeth Milovidov, an eSafety consultant currently based in Paris.
There are questions beyond security too, brought on by the advent of IoT in bringing up baby, suggests Milovidov. “How will IoT be used against parents and caregivers? If parents are in the process of divorcing, can the mother use data from the connected diaper to show that the father was negligent in the care of the child? We do not have the answers to these questions, and I caution IoT industry professionals to consider the rights of the child and the families in all product development decisions,” she says.
As for parents, for now they’re only relieved to have all the help they can get — and no amount of technological assistance is too much. “My only wish is sort of a pipe dream. I actually wish it gave me more information,” Dean says of her Owlet. Her wish just might be granted: Cue the TempTraq, a 24-hour intelligent thermometer that continuously records and sends alerts about baby’s temperature to a linked mobile device.
- Poornima Apte, OZY Author Contact Poornima Apte