Will These New Apps Boost Your Baby’s Brain Health?

Sproutling's wearable baby monitor can track sleep patterns and more. (Sproutling)

Author Anica John is an entrepreneur and advises Silicon Valley tech companies on business strategy and marketing. She recently worked at Smilables, an infant wearables startup.

I'm seven months along with my first child and feeling inundated with information and advice on baby products.

It’s no wonder, because registering for a baby shower can be daunting. I found myself stunned by the sheer volume of strollers and car seats (which, when put together are billed as “travel systems”), cribs and hundreds of other baby products.

Alongside these staples, I'm evaluating a new wave of devices that can now gather important health and wellness data about your baby.

Here's what I have learned so far:

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Some of the most popular startups in the space are producing new, high-tech baby monitors. These gadgets are a significant improvement on traditional baby monitors with scratchy audio outputs or grainy video. One company, Sproutling, produces a wearable baby monitor that delivers vital sign information on a sleeping baby. A similar device from Owlet comes in sock form.

But these startups don’t track the most important measure for a child’s long-term success: Brain development.

Can an App Support Your Baby's Brain Development?

Studies have shown that stimulating a newborn baby’s brain helps to create neural connections that will be vital to future brain development.

Traditionally, new parents have been coached to meet this need through general advice centered around attentiveness. For example, you'll often see infant care websites that instruct parents to “sing songs,” or “express joy and interest in your baby.”

While these are helpful reminders, concerted efforts on brain development tend to fall by the wayside.

Fortunately, during my research, I discovered a new category of technology products that addresses this problem.

BabySparks is a smartphone app that provides hundreds of activities for parents to perform with their babies, all of which look a lot like playing. Caregivers can decide to do activities based on the specific needs of their babies or follow a daily program recommended by the app based on the child's age and development characteristics.

The app also has a milestone feature that provides parents an objective understanding of how their baby should be progressing in each of the developmental areas.

Another startup, Versame, is developing a device that encourages caregivers to expose their infants to more words. Research indicates that the window for language development closes early. For example, infants over six months have difficulty recognizing sounds they have not heard repeated often.

Even more poignant is Stanford professor Anne Fernald’s assertion during a TED talk that, for babies, conversation is “nourishment for the brain.” [Skip to the bottom to watch the video in full.]

Versame’s hardware product can be worn directly by the baby, attached to the crib or placed in the nursery, and counts the number of words a child hears. Caregivers can check the data on their smartphone at any point during the day and adjust the attention they give to each child accordingly. The goal is to inspire powerful positive behavior changes.

Realistic Goals for New Technologies 

But my research showed that infant brain development products have a controversial history.

Such products have received criticism in the past. In 2007, the University of Washington claimed that Baby Einstein products adversely affected baby brain development by encouraging infants and toddlers to sit in front of televisions and watch educational DVDs or videos. While a subsequent lawsuit forced the researchers to retract their statements, the incident led the American Academy of Pediatrics to issue a recommendation against any screen time for children under two years of age.

So what's the best choice for a new parent?

It's important to choose products that increase caregivers' interactions with an infant
New products are a step ahead of nanny cams (Jim Champion)

The key is to choose products that increase the chances of caregivers interacting with infants. New parents, nannies, and other caregivers are often overwhelmed with caring for the basic needs of newborns and infants. In my opinion, using technology that provides constructive ways to interact with children this age can improve the number and quality of these interactions.

As a future working mother, the most compelling feature of these interactive baby educational products is that I can give my nanny specific assignments that can have a positive impact on my child’s development.

In the past, many working parents relied on nanny cams and an intuitive sense of how a hired caregiver would respond to our child’s needs. Now these new products provide metrics for measurement that allow us to set goals for improvement (“I’d like my child to hear 1000 more words each day,” or “I’d like her to do three more motor skills exercises this week.”).

This kind of tracking, if executed well, gives new tools to parents and caregivers, and may ultimately democratize early infant education through its effectiveness and simplicity.

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