May 1, 2015 · 6 minutes

Every now and then, I'll wake up from a deep, snore-riddled sleep, and, for whatever innate reason, get seized by an overwhelming sense of panic that something is wrong with one of my kids sleeping about 15 feet away. Sometimes, the worry will pass. Other times, I'll be driven to get up and sneak into their room to put my hand on their chest to see if they are breathing or watch them for a few moments to see if they move. The fear in this moment is far greater than the concern that I will wake one of them up —and just know that a half-awake kid in the middle of the night is a horrifying proposition.

To some degree, I can understand why technology, through the growing quantified baby movement, has invaded the nursery. Being responsible for a child is exhilarating, but it can become purely frightening in an instant.

The ability to check on a mobile device whether or not your kids are alive seems like a valuable use of the technologies spawned from the quantified self movement that initially gained traction among fitness buffs who used gadgets like the Jawbone UP and Nike FuelBand, and mobile apps like RunKeeper, Strava, and MyFitnessPal. It's a logical transition for the tech-savvy set that took to monitoring heart rate monitoring, oxygen blood level, and calorie intake along with their workout activities to transfer their fondness for cyborg-like connected devices to how they raise children.

But have we gone too far? Currently, there are about 50 different video baby monitors available at Babies 'R' Us, many with various HD and WiFi features, to make sure that every tick, hiccup, or bump in the night doesn't go unseen. Also, a new quantified baby device seems to pop up on Kickstarter every day, many claiming to help parents get a better night's sleep. It has gotten so bad tech designed to watch over and protect toddlers has even gotten the spoof treatment many times over.

Currently there are devices that can monitor a babies heart rate, their movement, breathing, temperature, and even the ummm...quality of bowel movements.

But does it work? Is tracking every single beat of your child's heart necessary? Or does it create in some parents an over-confident reliance on technology to monitor the overall health of their children, and in others an unnecessary paranoia and hypochondria by proxy?

It's all very convoluted. Most pediatricians, researchers, and the FDA dosn't think that baby monitoring gadgets marketed to give parents "peace of mind" are effective at all, and in some cases, the products can do more harm than good. If you search Google for articles on whether or not devices can prevent or detect something like the truly frightening Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS), you'll get a TIME piece called "Don’t Count on Smart Baby Monitors To Prevent SIDS," and one from Slate titled "Selling Fear: Smart monitors cannot protect babies from SIDS, so what are they for?"

One of the main criticisms of the quantified baby movement is that it can pull parents too far away from the enjoyment and challenges of raising a child without the help of technology. In a blog post about the smart diaper from Pixie Scientific, "Seattle Mama Doc" Wendy Sue Swanson, MD, MBE, wrote:

Parenthood demands attention, intuition, insight, and detailed documentation of a child’s life. Only sensible that more and more devices will help choreograph how we do this. But at some point, it’s not more numeric data we need, rather we need ways to follow our children’s habits, trends, and cycles without quantifiable details. Parenting isn’t only about engineering how our babies eat and sleep, grow and develop, learn to smile or talk, rather it’s about building a bond and learning to interpret natural cues babies provide for their unique needs. At some point, we do get to rely on instinct.
And yet, parents still seem to be flocking to the devices. According to a recent story in Inc., Sproutling, an ankle bracelet that monitors a babies sleep activity, sold out during its pre-order phase, and currently has a waitlist. CES 2014 darling MimoBaby — a onesy made by Boston-based Rest Devices that tracks a babies body position, breathing patterns, and heart rate — sold out its first shipment to Babies 'R' Us nationwide in six weeks.

While aware of the criticism, many of the quantified baby gadget makers are trying to expand the use cases for their products so that they aren't being viewed as life saving devices but more as a way to make life easier for parents. "We've learned that parents just want more access to information and insight," said Dulcie Madden, the co-founder of Mimo maker Rest Devices.

Madden believes that there are very real applications of the insight gained from products such as their onesies that go beyond the "peace of mind" factor of the device. For one, the company is using data and expert advice to incorporate sleep training features for its users to figure out how to get their kids the best night sleep. "We are working on being able to look at how a baby's sleep is developing and pair that with expert insight to possibly find ways to get your baby to sleep easier or to nap better," Madden said.

But regardless of the sales and exposure of parenting products like heart rate tracker Owlet, they're still being singled out as potentially dangerous in medical journals and news media outlets. Is there any actual value in quantified baby devices?

One device that is trying to prove a medical need before expanding its marketing to consumers is Raiing Medical's wireless thermometer, which was developed in China. The FDA-approved product is currently part of a clinical trial for adolescent chemotherapy patients at Mass General Hospital and is also involved in a research collaboration with Boston Children’s Hospital.

The Raiing thermometer sticks to a child's arm and sends data, by Bluetooth, to a mobile application. The device could become indispensable to hospitals taking care of young patients. If a patient's temperature spikes or drops to dangerous levels, it sends an alert to physicians, which can be crucial for monitoring patients who have had organ transplants or undergone chemotherapy.

"On a clinical side, this is extremely timely," said Boston Children's Hospital Informatics Program research fellow Jared Hawkins, PhD. "There are multiple types of patient populations that it is essential to monitor for temperature."

Raiing’s founder, Rong Xia, who is currently running operations out of the Harvard Innovation Lab, plans to continue to push the device not just for clinical applications, but also for consumers who would be interested in tracking the temperature of their children while they sleep.

In this instance, the company has created a wearable with real medical usefulness that's also viable as a consumer good, albeit one that still plays into the fears and concerns of helicopter parents who may see every change in body temperature as a reason to call the doctor.

In regard to the widespread use of a gadget like Raiing's thermometer, Hawkins said, "There's is a question of how useful a real-time temperature is going to be for a healthy child who just has a fever, but I think for the clinical study, it's absolutely essential."

As more and more quantified baby devices hit the market -- and with the success of MimoBaby and Sproutling they definitely will -- it will be interesting to observe how both pediatricians and regulatory organizations like the FDA react.

Hopefully, the devices become more popular for their general usefulness and not as a stand-in for traditional experience of parenting -- even with the anxiety.

[illustration by Brad Jonas]

[Editor’s note: The Go On With Your Quantified Self series is being sponsored by New Relic, so you’ll only see their ads around “Go On With Your Quantified Self” pieces. But the series was conceived, commissioned and edited entirely by Pando. New Relic had no input whatsoever in the editorial. For more on our policy towards single sponsor series like this one, see here.]

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