The minute I walked onto the showroom floor at CES, one of the world’s largest consumer trade technology shows, a spokesperson for Philips’ Pregnancy+ app accosted me. “Would you like to experience what it’s like to be a pregnant woman?” he asked.
“I already have,” I told him, but it was too late. Before I knew it, I was standing on a platform with a pair of headphones guided over my ears. “Your baby is now as big as a plum,” a solemn voice told me, as I rotated the tiny body on an iPad screen. I’d seen this all before, but still—I was transfixed.
I’m grateful to have experienced pregnancy and having children, but parenthood is a never-ending whirlwind of worry. Is the baby breathing right? Is she gaining the right amount of weight? Am I doing this right? At CES, plenty of gadget-makers seemed eager to capitalize on this anxious, urgent desire to protect the gorgeous gem of a human being that you’ve grown inside your body. Mostly, that means monitoring your baby. Parenting is about vigilance (and, apparently, teaching your toddler to code).
The sooner it starts, the better. We want to know everything, and anything, that will help us get our heads around the fact that this tiny bundle of cells will grow up to be a human with body hair, or one who likes reruns of Seinfeld. We’re hungry for data—and the tech industry is here to provide it.
The quest to quantify your child starts before you’ve even conceived. Wearables can pinpoint the optimum time to conceive; a bracelet can count fetal kicks; a monitor can leverage military-grade technology to count each newborn breath. For those of us who already have a smartwatch permanently affixed to our wrist, it seems like a very natural evolution.
“If you’ve already been using a Fitbit to track your steps for five years, it’s obvious that you can use a wearable to get pregnant,” says Bekah Otto, the editor-in-chief of baby registry website Babylist. “If you’re trying for six months and you’re already 35 years old, you need a tool that’s going to help you, without shelling out for IVF or Clomid.”
The gadget-makers have taken note. Wearable bracelets like the Ava bracelet and the Tempdrop both monitor variables like body temperature and heart rate variability ratio to predict a woman’s most fertile days. Once you’re pregnant—and Ava claims that they celebrate around 40 pregnancies per day—you can strap on the Owlet Band, a soft, stretchy band with soft ECG sensors woven throughout it to monitor your fetal kick counts and heart rate.
Even Apple Watches now offer this kind of granular feedback. Download an app called Airstrip and your Watch can gather all the information you need for a fetal non-stress test to monitor the health of your baby. When I was pregnant with both of my children, I had a checkup every few weeks. If I were pregnant now, I could check four, or 40, times every day.
“If the goal is to assuage anxiety, I’m not sure these devices would do that.”
Naomi Stotland, OB-GYN
Once your kid has been safely evacuated from the interior of your body, you can monitor their nighttime breathing in a number of ways. At CES, the Nanit monitor debuted Breathing Wear technology, which tracks the patterns on the proprietary Nanit swaddle and band to visually track the expansion and contraction of your child’s small lungs.
The doll-like Raybaby monitor combines radar sensors with AI to track the same thing, and the Miku monitor layers optical and wireless sensors to do the same and protects the data stored on the monitor with a tamper-resistant crypto chip. I had the opportunity to try the Miku, which warned me that the rate of my awake, adult, CES-quickened breathing was frankly alarming.
Once your kid is walking and you’re a little less worried that they can, you know, breathe properly? That’s when you stick a GPS tracker like a Jiobit or an Elios on them. You can geofence your kids, or track them in real time on the carpool home.
As a techie parent, I can see the appeal. Logging bits of child-related data into my phone and staring at it feels weirdly good—as satisfying as checking my step count before I go to bed, or my max heart rate when I work out. It’s probably the only compensation for the times when I can’t hold them in my arms.
But if monitoring your own metrics can get mentally exhausting, try monitoring someone else’s. As a general rule of thumb, the bigger they get, the more you need to let them go.
It’s easy to think that a wearable like the Ava or Tempdrop reduce the amount of labor a woman has to perform. No more peeing on sticks, or logging body temperature that’s been taken at specific hours. It’s also worth noting that pregnant women are commonly expected to do kick counts and keep track of contractions themselves, so the Owlet Band could also be considered a labor-saving device.
But Dr. Naomi Stotland, an OB-GYN and professor at the University of California-San Francisco’s obstetrics and gynecology department, sees limited benefits to this kind of constant monitoring. “I don’t know if devices like these would actually reduce the number of stillbirths,” Dr. Stotland says. “But what we do know is that increased monitoring—and not just with pregnancy—increases the chances of unnecessary intervention. If the goal is to assuage anxiety, I’m not sure these devices would do that.”
Join Parenting In a WIRED World, a new Facebook Group for parents to discuss kids’ health and their relationship to tech.
Worse, constantly monitoring your kid gives you a sense that you can protect them from everything. While creating a “Batcave-esque baby command center” might seem preferable to sticking your finger under your newborn’s nose every ten minutes, the FDA has not yet cleared a baby product as being capable of preventing SIDS. As for geofencing your kid? I was horrified to find Elios, one tracking company, using Elizabeth Smart—a thriving young woman who was also a famous kidnap victim—as their spokesperson.
“Wasn’t Elizabeth Smart kidnapped in her bed?” I asked Josh Cross, Elios’s CMO. “Are you supposed to put the tracker on the kid while they’re sleeping?”
“I see what you’re saying,” Cross said. “But she’s just saying if she had it, they would’ve been able to find her.”
Most of the manufacturers that I spoke to cited “peace of mind” as the reason why someone would log a child’s every breath and every heartbeat. But unlike the data that I collect on myself, the data that you collect on your children is not always actionable. If my step count is low, I can take a walk around the block. I can’t make my children breathe by staring at a screen.
A consumer product like the Owlet Band can’t protect you from a stillbirth; a smart baby monitor, no matter how detailed and secure, hasn’t been proven to prevent SIDS. And I can’t believe I’m saying this, but: You can’t buy anything that will prevent your kid from being kidnapped. It breaks my heart to think of a grieving parent wallowing in guilt and self-blame, thinking that you can prevent the unthinkable by purchasing a gadget.
So I’m telling you now: You can’t stop runaway buses in their tracks, or douse spreading wildfires, or extinguish every gruesome tropical disease. When you’re picking items for your baby registry, pick stuff that is cool-looking, and helpful, and will save you time and energy. But as far as parenting goes, guarding against every distant threat is not the most important task.
The real work isn’t tracking your kid’s every move, but enjoying the ride—watching them grow, helping them learn, and, sure, teaching them how to code before they can walk. And yes, preventing them from being a grown-up who likes Seinfeld. I have yet to see a device that will help me with that.