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The Data-Driven Parent: Is there such a thing as “too much” information?

I love babies,” says Ben MacNeill, “and I love technology, so it was a really good combo.” He’s talking about Trixie Tracker, a subscription website that grew out of his experiences as a stay-at-home dad weathering that combination of sleep deprivation and infant unpredictability that all parents remember as a kind of neonatal fog of war.

Starting when his daughter Trixie was born in 2003, MacNeill began recording every diaper and bottle and, later, each nap and hour of nighttime sleep. He started with a simple spreadsheet but soon put his background as a web developer and designer to use, building a web application to allow him to not only enter all the baby’s vital statistics but also share them – with his wife, who had to return to work after a very brief maternity leave, and with the grandparents and other friends and relatives – via a widget on his blog. By 2006 the tool had grown into a site offering subscription and free accounts (about 8000 have been created so far) for parents looking to record, analyze and share the details of their children’s daily care, everything from feeding to diapers to sleep to pumping and breastmilk inventory to prescription dosing. Trixie Tracker produces reports and charts and very cool visual representations of your baby’s patterns, and those who spring for a paid account can use the iPhone interface.

Welcome to parenting in the wi-fi era.

Trixie Tracker isn’t the only game in town; there’s also the Baby Brain, Baby Bix, Baby Daily Log, and a host of other applications, available both online and for your phone. And with virtually endless internet connectivity, parents can log each pee and poo, each nursing or pumping session, whether they happen to be at home, at the coffeeshop, or while waiting in line to sign up Junior for the preschool they hope he gets into in three years.

A century ago, a young mother was often counseled to slip a diaper pin around a bra strap to keep track of which breast she wanted to offer her baby at the next nursing session. Parents were often advised to keep careful records of their children’s eating and eliminating schedules (and just as frequently warned that without a schedule their babies would run the household). Paper and pencil gave way to rudimentary spreadsheets as the personal computer entered the family home twenty-some years ago. Some parents, it seems, have always tracked data; as times changed, the popularity of data-tracking waxed and waned.

During my first child’s early days, nearly sixteen years ago, any kind of tracking was pretty unusual – I didn’t know anyone who did it – and ran counter to the conventional wisdom that had persisted since the ’70s or so, to let babies find their own rhythms and routines, rather than forcing a schedule upon them. The only advice books pushing any kind of monitoring or scheduling came from the Christian parenting movement, and if Gary Ezzo’s Babywise (a fundamentalist-based advice book whose insistence on “parent-directed feeding” led the American Academy of Pediatrics to publicly warn against it) told me I should pay attention to the length of time between nursing sessions, well, that was only further proof I should ignore such things.

So when I had a second child in 2006 – the same year the Trixie Tracker emerged from its Beta stage! – I was surprised to encounter a totally new type of fledgling parent: the unapologetic geek. This shouldn’t have shocked me. The years between my two children have seen the birth of the iPhone, the spread of the Internet, and the rise of the Whole Foods empire. Now the perfect parent would be wired (and wireless), a geek who valued attachment parenting, organic foods, top-shelf computing devices and nifty design.

Jennifer, a mom of one child in Arizona, said tracking her baby’s data came naturally to her. “I’m sort of a big tracker anyway – I charted to get pregnant, charted my diet during pregnancy…chart my work time,” she told me in an email. “So basically if there’s information I find it useful to collect and don’t want to hold it all in my head, I write it down.” She used a printed chart – very retro, really – that she got from a mother in her online women’s group, proclaiming Trixie Tracker, which she used briefly, “too micromanage-y even for me, believe it or not.”

So why do moms like Jennifer track data? “I mostly wanted to identify general patterns for sleep and feeding when I was really stressed about those issues,” she says. A satisfied customer, she says she’ll do the same thing with any subsequent children.

Another Jennifer I know, a mother of two in Massachusetts, also tracked but more haphazardly. Her husband, she says, “created elaborate spreadsheet layouts, printed them out…and then we never consistently used them.” After struggling with breastfeeding her first son, Jennifer reports, she noted pumping sessions on post-it notes for months and months. Looking at them later, she saw “pages and pages of a completely meaningless log of numbers: 10:30 PM, 1:15 AM, 4 AM, 6:30 AM. It looked like something out of A Beautiful Mind or something, just numbers on a paper.”

Babies change all the time. Numbers without any narrative, or numbers as narrative – it’s some geeks’ version of Nirvana, but to others it seems either pointless or even a big frightening, a sign of information overload. My friend Nina, a mother of three who lives in Kansas, says she was never tempted to track. The whole thing, she thinks, is “a little obsessive compulsive, and motherhood sort of lends itself to that. I think it just seems overly anxious.” And the last thing new parents need is any encouragement to be obsessive or anxious. “I’ve seen a lot of women get so anxious in that first week, when everything is really raw and new and scary they just freak,” she says, and adds that she worries data tracking interrupts the natural rhythm of parenting, “that connection between you and your baby, that flow, the energy thing, that you know when he’s hungry and how long he needs to, and if he’s full. I think you lose all that when you start focusing on ounces, or minutes.”

It seems that parents themselves are divided on whether data tracking is useful or crazy-making (or maybe both). So I asked an expert. Libby Rosen is a pediatric nurse, lactation consultant, university instructor and head of a postpartum breastfeeding clinic in Topeka, Kansas. Oh, and she’s just finished her doctoral dissertation on baby sleep patterns.

“As a researcher, obviously I have to support data to a certain extent,” she tells me. “It gives us information it helps us to see if there’s any predictability to things.” She thinks parents trying to make sense of their children’s patterns can benefit from seeing those patterns on paper, or a screen. And, she points out, “these things are fun to write down and put in the baby book.”

“I do worry sometimes,” she says, that we’ve become “a society where everything has to be figured out, analyzed, tracked. I don’t want us to get away from just looking and admiring and enjoying that nighttime interlude with that baby and just saying, you know, it won’t always be like this.” Babies change all the time, she points out, and just when you think you’ve discerned a reliable pattern to their behavior, it’ll change again. And no two babies are alike, so anyone hoping to map their data points along a model of “normal” is in danger of misunderstanding their unique baby, at this unique moment in time.

“What worries me,” she goes on, “is that a computer program or an iPhone program doesn’t always give you the reassurance to know that gosh, this too shall pass.” A tool, whether electronic or pen and paper, can’t replace what parent used to rely on. “I think that we need what we had in the years past – neighbors, relatives, people you could bounce things off of. We need somebody to say, ‘yeah, they do that, and that’ll change, that’ll get better’.”

For Ben MacNeill, data tracking isn’t an alternative to human interaction or intuition, but a useful adjunct. “Trixie Tracker doesn’t replace instinct at all,” he says, “it just kind of augments it. As people we’re really good at figuring out patterns once we can see all the data on one screen.” Having that screen available “just complements what you already know,” he says.

Is data tracking just a generational impulse? Still, I wonder: is there something in our culture that makes us think that numbers – minutes, hours, ounces, pounds – somehow mean more than other kinds of information? Do we feel that translating so primal and organic an experience into numbers gives us control at a time when, for the first time in many people’s lives, they feel completely out of control? Is data tracking just a generational impulse, the natural reaction of a generation that doesn’t hear a tree fall in the forest until it can find an applicable iPhone app to enhance the experience?

It seems to me that while data tracking may be one of those take-it-or-leave-it things, different strokes and all, it could actually be harmful to the very people most likely to try it – extremely anxious first-time parents with a brand-new baby – especially if they’re hoping to breastfeed. Just keeping track of the numbers (whether minutes nursed or hours between sessions) seems likely to pull one out of the mindset and habits (following the baby’s lead, nursing whenever the baby might want to, no matter how recently she was last nursed) so crucial to successful breastfeeding.

Perhaps the most interesting comment came from another Kansas mom, Karen, whose two children had very different beginnings. “Our first child,” she wrote me, “was a twin who didn’t gain weight easily and stayed small in overall size. His situation was serious, so information was tracked very closely.”

Yet when she had her second child a few years later, Karen wrote, pain medication following a difficult birth made it impossible for her to keep track of anything. So she went low-fi: “I stayed in bed and the baby stayed close to me. She breastfed when she wanted and diapers were kept close by. With this unusual approach, the baby gained weight easily and was very content.”

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