The so-called quantified self movement is knocking on the nursery door. As adults rush to wrap their wrists with activity trackers and fill their smartphone screens with calorie counters, a number of new companies are trying to court them with gadgets for their most vulnerable appendages: their babies. But is all of that data really useful?
The most recent (and buzzworthy) product is a “smart diaper” from New York-based Pixie Scientific that uses camera technology and chemistry to detect when a baby might be suffering from a urinary tract infection, dehydration or other problems. The front of the diaper displays a square with colored boxes that change color when they interact with a protein, bacteria or other urine content that indicates a potential abnormality. To decode the colored patch, parents snap a picture of the diaper with a smartphone app that analyzes the color changes and returns a result.
“I was driving with my wife and daughter one day, when my wife asked if the baby had wet herself,” Yaroslav Faybishenko, Pixie’s founder, told the New York Times. “I realized she was sitting in data.”
The special diaper, which hasn’t yet received approval from the Food & Drug Administration, could cost up to 30 percent more than the typical diaper and is expected to be tested at a California children’s hospital this fall. (There’s more about the smart diaper on the company’s Indiegogo campaign site.) But it’s just the latest uber high-tech device trying to convince parents that they need a data-rich window into their babies’ wellbeing.
As my colleague Stacey Higginbotham reported a few months back, startup Sproutling is developing a yet-to-be-released sensor-based anklet for babies that monitors their vital signs while they sleep. Like a typical baby monitor, it lets parents keep watch from a distance but only alerts them when it senses something is wrong. Sensor-equipped onesies from Rest Devices and Exmovere track indicators like temperature, movement and respiration, and then wirelessly transmit the data to a parent’s computer or smartphone. And then there’s the ridiculous but real Huggies TweetPee that sends parents notifications when their infants wet their diapers (for now, this one’s just a concept being tested by Huggies Brazil).
But just because parents can capture all this data about their babies’ bodily functions, does that mean they should? Sure, the diaper could help clue parents into whether their child needs medical attention. But for neuroses-prone parents, it could just lead to more needless nailbiting. Dr. Wendy Sue Swanson, a Seattle-based pediatrician, warned that it could also contribute to unnecessary tests and tracking.
Urinary tract infections are not very common in babies, she said, and when they do have an infection, they typically have symptoms like a fever and crying that would alert parents to a problem anyway. She also wondered about the accuracy of the sensors, given that testing for UTIs and other conditions requires sterilization and filters.
Tracking certainly has a place for new parents, and technology could be especially helpful when it comes to helping parents understand and optimize their infants’ sleep patterns, but the risk is that too much technology could compromise parents’ abilities to naturally read their child’s behavior and learn to respond.
“Until these [products] are proven to show benefits, these devices may be increasing parental anxiety … and then we’re stepping backwards in the experience of parenthood, bonding and learning natural instincts and cues,” Dr. Swanson said. “I don’t think we should close the door on this technology, but we should be thoughtful about how and when we use them on a daily basis.”