Readers – Here’s a piece I wrote for the Wall Street Journal a little while back that I can now legally reprint here!
Bringing Up Baby and Fretting About Vital Signs
New gadgets, like diapers that monitor kidney function, are turning baby nurseries into ICUs.
By LENORE SKENAZY
Almost anything you can put on a baby is cute. A hat. Sunglasses. A bib (especially the one that says, “Some moron put my cape on backwards!”). But now comes the Owlet Baby Monitor—a little electronic device strapped to a sock at bedtime.
It measures your baby’s heart rate, blood oxygen levels, skin temperature, sleep quality and sleeping position. Then it streams all this information to your smart phone.Phew! At last you know your baby’s blood oxygen level! Except . . . I don’t even know my own blood oxygen level. Do you know yours? It’s just not something most of us have ever even thought about, because it seems to take care of itself.
So who needs this kind of data about their babies? According to Dr. Kenneth Bromberg, chairman of pediatrics at the Brooklyn Hospital Center, no one. He can’t see any medical or safety reason to get one of these devices. What’s worse, he says, “This is an invitation to craziness. It will make you neurotic and anxious. I don’t see how any new parent with that gadget won’t be driven insane.”
But crazy as it may be, this thing is on the market, and it’s just one beeping bit of a whole culture dedicated to treating normal, healthy kids as if they need constant medical attention.
This explains the “Smart Diaper” already in prototype. Developed by New York-based Pixie Scientific, the diaper has a QR code on the front. When a baby pees, the code turns different colors depending on the chemical content of the, um, liquid. The parent then takes a photo of the diaper with a smart phone, which analyzes the code’s colors to determine if the baby has an infection, or possibly diabetes, or maybe even a kidney malfunction.
God forbid you just use an old-fashioned, dumb diaper and figure that if the kid looks OK, his kidneys probably are too. Big baby data is undermining the belief that any kid is equipped to make it from today till tomorrow without intense technological scrutiny.
This trend began with audio baby monitors, and I bought right into the culture, setting one up next to our son’s crib even though we were living in a one-bedroom apartment. Ack! It was impossible not to hear him crying, even without the monitor. But somehow I thought also hearing a second, staticky version was vitally important.
Then came video monitors, then infra-red video monitors, then pivoting infra-red monitors that sweep the room all night, which always struck me as something Osama bin Laden might have wanted to invest in. But a normal parent of a healthy child? Only if they’re in the witness-protection program.
Anyway, those room monitors seem almost quaint now that we’ve got these wearable ones—with more variations than you can shake a rattle at.
For instance, there’s the SafeToSleep Breathing Monitor, a sheet with sensors built in to monitor every single breath of your baby and alert your smart phone if these stop (which can happen if the kid rolls off the mat). Which sounds exactly like the iBabyGuard, which sounds quite similar to the AngelCare AC1100—all of them are promising parents peace of mind.
But really, this kind of device delivers just the opposite. “While it’s supposed to reassure you, what it is going to do is create more worry,” says David M. Reiss, a San Diego, Calif., psychiatrist who just finished a stint training Harvard medical students. “You’re basically setting up a type of ICU vigilance which isn’t indicated.”
Not to mention all those new arguments: “Honey—it’s your turn to read the smart phone.”
But it is the Owlet baby monitor that seems to have reached the apex of apoplexy. “Although you can see your child’s tummy moving, you have no idea how much oxygen she is really getting!” warns the Owlet website—as if somehow that whole breathing-equals-living thing just can’t be taken for granted.
And, eventually, it may not be. When and if these geegaws become as common as Mozart mobiles, it could be only a matter of time before they are required by law at day care centers, and then schools and then—who knows?—maybe even college.
After all, don’t you want to know your child’s heart rate and sleep positions when he’s in bed far away from you?