When my daughter Ella was little, I’d often see various tech products on my Facebook feed purporting to calm parents who were anxious about their baby’s sleep. Next to feeding, there’s likely no more anxiety-prone part of the day than a child’s bedtime – the fear they’re not on a schedule, or that once they get on one, it’s the wrong one, or that once they’re actually asleep, they might never wake up.
I dismissed them out of hand – we were sharing a room with Ella, and I was aware of her every snort and snuffle, though in retrospect, it seems obvious that we could have had her sleeping through the night a little earlier … if we’d only settled on a sleep training method.
Whichever one you pick neatly slots you into a parental taxonomy. Are you an adherent of Dr Richard Ferber’s method, popularized in the 1980s, which encourages you to let your child “cry it out” until you’re popping Xanax like popcorn? Perhaps you’re a disciple of Twelve Hours’ Sleep by Twelve Weeks Old, which guarantees as much, so long as you’re willing to track her food and occasionally force-feed her like a foie gras goose. Or maybe you purchased a California King bed the day you found out you were pregnant, and now all sleep together, your breasts exposed to the night air so Junior can sidle up and have a sip whenever he’d like. We opted for an amalgam of each, and at around four months old Ella successfully dropped the horrible 3am feed.
But by the time our second daughter, Charlotte, was born in 2019, the landscape was a smidge different. The sleep tracker market was booming and my tech-loving husband started sending me links to various products promising us peace and serenity. There was Harvey Karp’s Snoo, the $1,495 smart bassinet that kicks data back to your phone while it jiggles your baby to sleep – sometimes so quickly it looks like she’s about to launch from Cape Canaveral. There was the Owlet smart sock, which tracks your child’s heart rate as he sleeps and issues an alarm if something is awry. There was the Miku Pro Smart Baby Monitor, which allows you to see, in real time, your baby’s “breathing waveform”, should that be up your alley.
I clicked on one, mostly because it seemed to have taken sleep monitoring to Onion headline–level extremes. The Nanit is an award-winning camera that uses night vision and machine learning to track your child’s movements and then spits out a sleep score in the morning. The number factors in how long it took the child to fall asleep, how many times the parent came in, and how deep the sleep was.
When I told a friend with five children about it, she snorted.
“As if I need data to know how well my children sleep,” she replied. “Either I feel like hell in the morning, or I feel like hell warmed over.”
But, fresh to the world of man-to-man parenting, and coming to dread a bedtime when I had to nurse one baby while the other threw Scarface-level tantrums in her room, I decided to do a solid for my family, and got in touch with Nanit HQ.
“Putting a child to sleep is one of the first problems you’re dealing with as a new parent. The Nanit helps you formalize a strategy,” Assaf Glazer, Nanit’s founder and former CEO, tells me when we meet at the midtown WeWork where he used to house part of the company.
Glazer – bald, clean-shaven, formerly of the Israel Defense Forces – completed his PhD at the Technion in Haifa, specializing in machine learning and computer vision, and later worked on solutions for missile defense systems. When he became a parent, he found himself working late at night, checking in on his son Udi, and wondering something only a former Israeli air force pilot would ever wonder: can I apply process control to a baby?
He knew that if the answer turned out to be yes, he had an audience. On average, parents lose 44 days of sleep during the first year of a baby’s life.
The camera Glazer developed uses smart sensors to transmit sound and motion notifications to your phone and, by tracking sleep patterns over time – specifically with your child, but also by bundling the data of thousands of babies and millions of nights of sleep – it offers sleep tips to groggy parents. (The company has since gone on to add other products, including Smart Sheets, which track a baby’s growth, and pajamas and other sleepwear that help the camera better read your child’s nighttime movements.)
If you’re the kind of parent who simply wants to see how long their child slept the previous night, Glazer tells me, fine. But if you prefer charts and graphs about nap habits over time that rival the metrical intricacies of a spaceship launch, the Nanit can give you that, too. For the right clientele, it occurs to me, marketing this product is the equivalent of shooting fish in a barrel: your audience is sleep-addled and susceptible.
Imagine a child, Glazer tells me, who has just thrown his pacifier out of the crib for the 14th time and is wailing. If you know that it’ll take him only two more minutes of crying to put himself back to bed, but you’ll prolong that by 20 minutes if you go in to fetch the pacifier, won’t you stay outside a little longer?
I don’t have to imagine: when Ella was younger, my husband and I would often find ourselves in the wee hours inching around her floor on our stomachs like worms, hunting for various glow-in-the-dark pacifiers she’d thrown out of her crib as she stood, pouting, a mini overlord of a glowing kingdom.
In many ways, Glazer’s pitch is compelling. But I keep stumbling on the company’s messaging.
“Rest Easy, Your Crib is Covered,” reads the website’s homepage. The implication is that parents will only be able to fall asleep themselves once they know that a hi-tech camera is monitoring their child’s every move.
Why? Sids, or Sudden Infant Death Syndrome, which causes unexplained death in seemingly healthy children less than a year old. It kills about 1,300 children in the US each year, and though my pediatrician assures me that its risk plummets if you breastfeed, put babies on their backs, and don’t smoke, it’s still a panic-inducing acronym. Glazer, I figure, must viscerally understand this.
Way down in the website’s fine print, I find a disclaimer:
Nanit is not a medical device. Nanit is a connected product designed and intended to continuously learn from the data it collects to help you understand your baby’s sleep patterns. It is not intended to diagnose, treat or cure any disease or other condition, including but not limited to, Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (Sids). False positive or false negative readings about your baby’s breathing patterns are a potential risk of Nanit. Nanit should not substitute for the care and oversight of an adult or consultation with medical professionals.
But it’s buried below testimonials, product descriptions and links to the company’s Pinterest page, literally the last possible thing you can read, in the teensiest type the website displays.
“They are very clever in how they advertise,” Dr Rachel Moon tells me about baby sleep tech devices, when I reach her at the University of Virginia, where she is the division head of general pediatrics. She also serves on the AAP’s task force on Sids and has been a practicing pediatrician for more than 30 years. “They never say that this will prevent Sids, but they come pretty close.”
A friend’s baby was born prematurely, and spent the first few months of her life being intensely monitored in the NICU. Various sleep devices like these understandably calmed my friend’s anxiety after she took her daughter home from the hospital and suddenly found herself alone with a child who, mere days before, had a team of professionals checking up on her hourly.
But for the vast majority of babies, this level of tracking is wildly unnecessary, my pediatrician assures me. A doctor wouldn’t release a child from the hospital if he or she needed it. On top of that, Moon tells me, researchers have sent hospital-grade monitors home with high-risk children and the studies show they did nothing to prevent Sids. Why would these newfangled, nonmedical versions?
“They get right up to the line so they don’t have to be regulated by the FDA, which I think is irresponsible,” Moon continues. “The vast majority of parents believe the FDA is regulating all these products. We know that’s not true. It gives you this false sense of complacency – Oh, since I have this device on, it gives me permission to do what I know I’m not supposed to do.”
So, you know your baby should be on a hard, firm mattress in a crib, but you want to cuddle at night? As long as the device is on, the reasoning might go, I can snuggle away. “They use one behavior to compensate for another behavior, which is potentially magnified with technology,” says Moon.
After my conversation with Moon, I slowly started to internalize that much of this data gathering serves more to bolster parental anxiety than to guarantee a desired outcome for the child. But however much I wanted to ignore the influx of information, sleep related or otherwise, I found it exceedingly difficult to look away.
And I wanted to know why: why couldn’t I just put my phone away, internalize all the research I’d done about the futility of monitoring weight gained, hours slept, inches grown?
I was somewhat reassured when I learned this impulse – to ingest data and process it – lives deep within our fish brains, embedded there after generations and generations of evolution.
“We are the only species that has this biological imperative built in to the degree we do,” Daniel J Levitin, professor emeritus of psychology and neuroscience at McGill University, tells me.
As Levitin explains, when we left the cover of trees as primates and went out onto the savannah, we became prey. In order to survive, our brain evolved to acquire and process information about the environment, other primates and that lion over there, behind the rock. Those of us with good information-gathering skills were the ones who didn’t just sit there in the wide open, twiddling our opposable thumbs and waiting for said lion to come over and turn us into a mid-morning snack.
Each new hit of information we got, back then, triggered a release of dopamine – and the same is true today, except that release comes after you take a hit of ecstasy, or get an iPhone notification.
The problem is that, in the last five years alone, we’ve created more information as a species than in all of human history before it. “Five thousand years ago, you’d learn about where the new fruit tree was and that was the big event of the week,” Levitin tells me. As for processing this information overload? “There’s evolutionary lag,” he continues, “and it takes about ten thousand years for our brains to catch up.”
In the modern era, with so much information bombarding us, our “attentional filter” essentially becomes clogged and stops working properly.
But even if I were able to process all the data, I wonder, to what end? My doctor has assured me that tracking, after a certain point and in most cases, is medically unnecessary. As to whatever part of me might hope to use this data to program my child to behave in a certain way – to sleep at a certain time, to gain a certain amount of weight – well, any more seasoned parent will easily tell me: you can control a child as much as you can force her to poop on command. So shouldn’t I save my money, and free up my attentional filter in the process?
Charlotte started sleeping through the night on her own by four months – no devices, no cry-it-out, she just did it. I have no idea why. Perhaps it’s because I’d become a different kind of parent, or she’s just wired a certain way. But I know, for certain, it had nothing to do with any new-fangled hi-tech sleep tracker.
I’m pregnant with No 3 now. With the baby safely in my uterus, I’m fully prepared to scrub his or her sleep life of technology. But having done this twice before, all I can say is: let’s see how smug I am when the baby actually arrives and I’m ready to hop into a smart bassinet myself. If I’ve learned anything, it’s that you can control very little when it comes to parenting – including your own convictions.
This is an edited excerpt from the book Baby, Unplugged, published by HarperOne