You could easily have missed the newest trend underway out there in the virtual world. We have now entered the Age of the Digitally Connected Baby.
We have all become familiar with baby monitors: the device released as early as the 1930s that let parents listen in on babies from another room, in order to know if they were sleeping. The subsequent development of technologies like Skype and Facetime made it unsurprising when monitoring moved to the visual level. Lots of parents now have cameras installed over their baby’s crib, so that they can check their phones to see if the baby is sleeping.
But we’ve moved way past the monitoring of mere sleeping. Parents can now use digital technology to check up on all sorts of things: their baby’s heart rate, breathing rate, temperature, blood oxygen level, whether they are sleeping on their stomach or back, if they are likely to be fussy upon waking, and even if their nappy needs changed. You no longer have to check your baby’s body for these things. Instead, you can just check your phone.
If you want a clear sense of the excitement driving these technological developments – as well as the money that stands to be made – there is no better source than the video released in December 2014 by the New York Times. It is significant for me that it is entitled ‘The Connected Baby’.
There are a growing range of ‘smart devices’ to choose from. They come complete with electronic sensors and downloadable software, with the sensors encased in cute baby-appropriate forms, including anklet bracelets adorned with hearts, arm bands in pastel colours, and clip-ons shaped like turtles and owls. Once you’ve fixed these to the baby’s clothing or body, you can monitor their internal functioning from hundreds of feet away.
In fact, you don’t even have to go to the effort of clipping on. You can purchase ‘wearables’ that have the electronic leads already sewn into the cloth. Yes, that’s right. Parents can now purchase electronic pyjamas. For example, the Mimo Baby onesie boasts not only the endearing turtle clip-on, but also two attractive green stripes running across the tummy. Those stripes aren’t just for decoration. They contain respiratory sensors, powered by an Intel chip sufficient to run a PC computer. You can buy a starter pack of three onesies plus turtle for about £150, and thereafter they cost only £15 each. And yes, they’re organic and machine washable.
If you want to see even more of what’s on offer in this new world, you can find animated descriptions on a whole range of technology sites, including Latest Gadgets UK and Wifi Baby, as well as in mainstream newspapers. The ‘smart nursery’ is catching up with the ‘smart kitchen’ and ‘smart garage’.
One wonders how parents survived up until now! I say that so we can laugh. We need to be able to laugh at ourselves, at parenting fashions, at the relentless march of technology. For the whole of human history, parents have been able to raise their offspring without the help of electronic pajamas and nappy pee detectors. Yet marketers and fans are arguing that these tools can provide lasting peace of mind. What a tempting promise that is, for anxious parents of new babies.
When we laugh, we’re better able to stay in a curious place, even if we feel troubled. And I think we need to be troubled about these latest technological developments. We should not let the language fool us. Digitally connected babies are not happier babies. They are not healthier babies or safer babies. More importantly, digitally connected babies are not emotionally connected babies.
In fact, we could pause to ask: might there be any risks to babies’ development caused by digital connection? The marketing of these products certainly doesn’t suggest so. But the science of attachment does. These products will change the way that parents relate to their children. That’s what they are designed to do. This means that digital products will inevitably alter the development of infants’ brains and self-regulatory capacities, in ways we have not begun to consider.
I don’t know how major the impact of these devices might be. But I do think parents deserve to be aware of the risks, so that they can make informed choices. Every time a parent allows digital connection to replace physical connection, they change their child’s developmental course.
I think the manufacturers should be obligated to explain that risk to their customers. The trouble is that the technology is way too new for such legal regulations, and also too new for gathering data that would assess the developmental impacts. The manufacturers probably don’t even know about the science of attachment. They may have no idea that what they are doing could carry long-term impacts for children’s development.
So what does the science of connection tell us that might be relevant? A long history of attachment research has yielded four key insights on this front:
1. Babies are born with immature brains. This means they cannot regulate their own emotional and physiological states. They are dependent on other people to help them do that. Babies are biologically dependent on the presence of another person in order to feel safe, calm, and reassured.
2. Babies are born connected to other people. That means every single physiological system within their body is attuned to the adults they spend their day with. Their gaze monitors, their heart rate synchronises, they breathe in parallel, even their body temperature converges.
3. The growth of neural synapses in a baby’s brain is shaped by experiences of connection. If a baby has enough early experiences of emotional safety and reassurance, then their brain grows synaptic networks that let them recreate those experiences later on in life. If they don’t have such experiences, they have greater difficulty recreating them for themself. They become overwhelmed by strong emotions.
4. Early emotional experiences are so influential that they predict all sorts of adult outcomes, including mental health, physical health, smoking and drinking, the happiness of marriage, and even the symptoms of dementia. Humans are incredibly social creatures. For us, relationships matter for everything.
Digital technology is designed to alter the relationships of parents and babies. That means it risks undermining babies’ developing self-regulatory capacities. The fact that infant humans have such a strong biological need for the physical presence of adult humans is the result of 100,000 years of primate evolution. Babies cannot feel safe unless their brain has learned that there is always another person nearby, ready to come to the rescue when they feel anxious.
Indeed, it is more than just a baby’s brain that notes that presence. The same systems being monitored with smart devices do too. That’s why kangaroo care, with its emphasis on skin-to-skin contact, is now recommended for all premature babies; the parent’s body temperature regulates the baby’s. That’s why co-sleeping is supported by its advocates: the parent’s breathing rate regulates the baby’s respiration. That’s why smiling with a baby is so pleasurable: it instantly synchronises the heart beats of both partners.
Harry Harlow’s controversial research in the 1950s with infant monkeys made discoveries that were entirely unpredicted at the time. He showed that the drive for touch is stronger than the drive for food. Humans are descended from the primate line, and our babies, born so very early in the gestational process for mammalian species, need to be raised as much as possible in the embrace of human flesh. Every infant benefits from kangaroo care, not just the ones born prematurely.
The problem for the digitally connected baby’s body is that it doesn’t know it is connected to anyone. It is emotional connection that matters to a baby, and it is only the physical presence of another human being that tells a baby they are emotionally connected. My prediction is that digital con-nection is likely to foster emotional dis-connection.
The manufacturers don’t seem to fear that. Carson Darling, one of the founders of the company who created the Mimo Baby, said: “You can look at your smartphone and know that everything is okay.” Okay, as the parent, YOU may know everything is okay, but the baby doesn’t. The baby will only know that everything is okay when you bring your warm, biological arms and pick him up.
I find myself thinking of a story told at a lunch I recently attended:
“I still remember the trips we used to take by car to my grandparents, even though I was very little. We would arrive back at home late at night, and I can remember my father reaching in to unbuckle me, and then lifting me into his arms. He would carry me up the stairs, all warm and smelling wonderful. I always slept best on those nights coming back from my grandparents.”
Today’s children are less likely to experience such ‘wonderful’ memories than were the previous generation. Young children are now transported in travel systems, the technological device that enables a parent to lift the whole car seat out of the car, avoiding any need to wake a sleeping child by lifting them into your arms.
Digital connection removes even the need to check on a sleeping child, let alone lift them into your arms. Today’s children have less and less occasion to sense the presence of their parent. Digital technology is specifically designed to separate parents even further from their children.
The fashion website Cute Munchkins is worried about this. They have said of the Mimo Baby onsie that it “seems to replace parenting with science, turning the whole process [of parenting] into something robotic.” The tech site Wareable argues that, while technology may not harm, it is still important to know when to switch it off. Paediatrician Mark Nethercoate, an avowed techy who runs Kidspot, believes that while smart devices have been designed with the best of intentions to help, in practice “they will do the exact opposite.”
This, then, is the discussion we should be having right now, while the ‘internet of infants’ is still in its own infancy. We should be drawing on the science of attachment to help us think about the long-term consequences of this technology. However, that is not the discussion we are leaning toward. We have tended so far to focus on what it is like to be a ‘connected parent’.
Some parents believe that these products will indeed bring peace of mind, just as the marketers promise. For example, here is what @andrewoutlaw had to say on Engadget’s site, in response to the news in January 2014 that Mimo Baby was soon to be released:
“I’m seriously considering buying this for a child that me and the wife are expecting this spring. The wife thinks I’m nuts. I am thinking its peace of mind. We were going to buy a monitor anyway and spend about $200 on it. But when the kid is in daycare (even if its the one at my wife’s job), this device will let us know what’s going on. We couldn’t have that with a traditional or video monitor. I’ll need to rethink my presentation of why we need this, to sell her on the idea. But I do think it’s a good idea.”
Not all customers agree. Here is how PegCityNerd responded to that comment:
“It will NOT bring you piece of mind. Trust me. Having a simple audio baby monitor, let alone one with a video, adds to the stress and lack of sleep….Suddenly, silence becomes worrisome. You lose even more sleep when the baby sleeps longer. You’re always listening. With this new invention, you’ll end up staring at your phone all night….Take it from me, a parent of two young children, this won’t give you peace of mind.”
This debate is important. It speaks to parents’ needs and parents’ stress levels. Maybe digitally connected parents really will feel calmer. My point is that this can never be the case for digitally connected babies. Digitally connected babies are likely to feel lonely.
Wow. Parents can pay hundreds of pounds to help their baby grow up feeling lonely. The fact that no parent intended that, and that no manufacturer probably did either, is no guarantee against it. It is only our wisdom that guarantees against that.
What we can do is educate people, especially parents, about the science of human connection. If we let our excitement about digital connection interfere with our babies’ need for emotional connection, then we shoot ourselves in the foot. Both they and we will suffer.
All you have to do to help in educating others about that science is to forward this article to someone you love.