Our addiction to data has infiltrated motherhood. Is it possible to be overly informed?
When Ana’s first child was born, he was “a lazy eater and a lousy sleeper,” his mother says. The hospital had given her a sheet on which to log all of his feedings, sleeping, and wet and poopy diapers. But that quickly seemed inadequate. “I thought, this is ridiculous,” says Ana, a mother of two in Florida, “I’m never going to remember any of this and I’m going to lose this piece of paper. And so I found an app on my phone and used it to track how much he was eating, how often, and when he was pooping and all that stuff.”
The app Ana chose was Baby ESP, but there are dozens of others. Jessica, a mother of three in Massachusetts, used one by American Baby, which also publishes a free parenting magazine. For her first two children, Jessica used a paper journal to keep track of their feeding, but with her third baby and a hectic schedule, she finds it helpful to set reminders to either nurse or pump about every two hours during the day. “This baby would never get fed if I had to remember it all by myself!” she says.
For Noelle, a mother of two in Georgia, an app to track nursing helped save her sanity during a crazy-making time in her life. “I found infancy to be sooooo out of control and uncomfortable,” she says, “and the app gave me the illusion that I had some control over something.” Still, Noelle adds, it was just a tool, not a necessity. “I also use a run tracker for my running,” she points out, “but I can still run if my phone’s down.”
For all three women, using software to keep track of their new babies’ eating, sleeping, and pooping made life with a newborn slightly more manageable. And they are definitely not alone. Dozens of apps compete in the increasingly crowded market of frazzled new parents who are accustomed to finding everything they need on their smartphones.
I can’t help wondering, though, whether we are focusing too much on data when it comes to babies. As a society, we attach so much importance on what we can quantify—from standardized testing in preschools to a proliferation of statistics in sports to the obsessive poll-watching that now accompanies every presidential election—without, it seems, looking at the most important metric of all: Does this improve the quality of our lives?
For the moms I talked to, the answer was mostly yes. Noelle, who had to return to work only six weeks after her first child was born, found it incredibly helpful to have an app that could “do some thinking for me.” For Jessica, whose daughter had difficulty gaining weight due to reflux, “having all the information possible for when a doctor would ask” was helpful when trying to get the right diagnosis.
Ana says that using an app helped her preempt possible meltdowns. “My friends were like, Your kid is so calm,” she says, “and I was like, No, I just have this reminder of things and I can nip it in the bud” any time her child was likely to get fussy.
Still, there’s a part of me that worries whether we’ve gone too far in the direction of technology. I’m not a luddite—I even track my own steps each day with a Fitbit (which probably thinks I’m sleeping right now). But I’m also wary of the reach of science into a realm that feels more to me like art, or magic. After all, it was the so-called “scientific management” movement that pushed many mothers to choose formula over breastfeeding, put their babies on a strict schedule, and reject baby feeding norms as old as human history.
And I get nervous when I see new products like the Hatch Baby, a changing station that weighs your baby before and after each feeding, sending the information to your phone or laptop (or doctor or grandparents) automatically. Or the Milk Sense breast-milk calculator. Why? Because so many mothers who wanted to breastfeed stopped earlier than they had planned because they felt pressured to meet metrics for weight (often calculated for formula-fed babies) that they worried about a baby doing just fine.
At the same time, I’m reminded that some of my negative feelings about baby tracking come from my own experience. I was lucky enough to have easy, healthy babies and privileged enough to stay home with them each for a full year. I nursed them without keeping track of anything because I both wanted to and had the opportunity to—an app to see which breast was the right one to start nursing on would have been superfluous, as I usually just gave them each a squeeze to see which was ready to go first. I could afford to “watch the baby, not the clock,” as La Leche League counsels, because I had all the time in the world, and I didn’t have to clock into a job myself.
But not everyone has the same experience, or wants to. And, I also have to remind myself, some people just like data more than others. “I was just the kind of kid who made graphs for fun,” says Ana. For her, tracking her child’s data points is both interesting and calming. “When we were battling sleep issues,” she says, “I could look back and see if it really was getting worse. And [the data] would reassure me that we were making progress. I helped me to look at the big picture.”
Aha. The big picture—one I sometimes miss when thinking about parents who have made other choices than I did—is this. New parenthood is so fraught with terror, confusion, and sleep deprivation that we should all feel free to use—without any guilt whatsoever—whatever gets us through it in one piece.
“I regret nothing,” says Noelle, whose kids are now 6 and 9. “We all survived. I did my best with what tools I had in hand.” Amen.
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