Today, digital technology permeates nearly every demographic corner of society. High school students do their homework on iPads, octogenarians use Skype and contactless payment, and Fitbit trackers tell legions of wearers how healthy, or unhealthy, their lifestyles are. But there is one area where technical innovation is still in its relative infancy: parenting.
A slew of eager start-ups are now falling over themselves to develop and retail products that connect babies and kids with smartphones. Increasingly sophisticated apps, monitors and myriad wearable devices provide couples with real-time information on their children’s breathing, skin temperature and heart rate. We are entering the era of digital parenting.
The development of smart technology means mothers and fathers can now keep track of their babies and toddlers 24/7, using smart clothes, video monitors with two-way audio, and an ever-growing range of other devices.
Utah-based start-up Owlet Baby Care was founded in 2013 by a group of young fathers. After more than two years of testing and development, the company released its first product in October 2015.
The Owlet Smart Sock, which currently retails for $250, uses pulse oximetry (many will recognize this as the little red light they attach to their finger in the hospital to track heart rate and oxygen). The company has miniaturized this technology into a sock that continuously tracks a baby’s heart rate and oxygen while they sleep.
If metrics are registered outside of a discrete zone, the Smart Sock system sends an immediate warning to all connected smartphones. Such zones, which are preset by the manufacturer, are in the order of 80-100 for oxygen and 60-220 bpm for heart rate. While the Smart Sock is a consumer product, Owlet is now working on a medical, FDA-approved version that can be used for clinical and diagnostic purposes.
“The Smart Sock is technological marvel,” says Jane Putnam, Owlet’s public relations manager. “Compared to a hospital pulse oximeter, it’s a tenth of the cost, a hundredth of the size, totally wireless and comparably accurate.”
Owlet is operating in a competitive space. San Francisco-based Sproutling has integrated the same technology into an ankle strap, while Boston-based Mimo has incorporated it into a onesie that also measures the baby’s sleeping temperature. If the baby is too warm, a smartphone-connected Nest thermostat can be used to change room temperature.
The monitor’s core technology is its cry detection system
Not all new baby tech comes in wearable form. The Smart Baby Monitor is the latest product from Evoz, a San Francisco-based start-up founded in 2009. An upgrade on traditional monitors, it retails at $229 and uses the home WiFi network.
The Evoz monitor differs from conventional monitors in several ways. A video monitor is connected directly to the user’s smartphone, so they can see and hear their baby at all times, regardless of location.
“The monitor’s core technology is its cry detection system,” says Evoz CEO Ruwan Welaratna. “This comprises two software modules. One runs in the firmware of the monitor, continuously analyzing the audio picked up by the microphone. The other runs on our servers that receives a small packet of information from the monitor every 10 seconds. Between these two systems, we know if the baby is crying.”
Data from the app, which is presented graphically, also allows parents to analyze their child’s sleep patterns. This is useful for planning their own sleep, or picking up changes in behavior that may correspond to sickness or some external influence. The app makes it easy to export data, so that it can be conveniently shared with pediatricians and sleep coaches.
The ongoing proliferation of baby tech is not without its critics. Many parents and scientists are concerned about the electromagnetic radiation generated by smart devices, and its possible side effects on the health of children and newborn babies.
Wireless devices emit both microwave and radio frequency radiation. Although more research needs to be conducted on the impact of such radiation, early evidence suggests that parents should be cautious. Animal studies quantifying the effect of radiofrequency signals on neuronal cell numbers in the pre-natal or early neonatal brain have detected significant decreases1.
“Babies and children are potentially more susceptible because they are still developing,” says Dr. Sarah Starkey, a UK-based neuroscientist and environmental health researcher. “I think most parents remain unaware of the possible risks.”
Many baby tech start-ups are already heeding the concern over wireless radiation. Owlet’s Smart Sock pairs with its base station via Bluetooth low energy, which generates far less radiation than a cellphone. Evoz’s Smart Bay Monitor uses compression software so that audio and video data transmission via WiFi is minimized.