Returning to work after having a baby used to be a new parent's first lesson in letting go. Not anymore.
New baby-tracking websites and phone applications are the latest tools for parents to keep tabs on their baby's every waking and sleeping moment -- even while they're at day care.
"I can't imagine how my return to work would've gone without it," Stephanie Malone said of recently enrolling her 5-month-old son Max at Kinderberry Hill in Roseville. The child care center, along with five other branches in the Twin Cities, is using a web and cellphone application to share information with parents in real time. Through "Baby Connect," Malone receives alerts to her Android phone, including photos and videos every time little Max does something short of blinking his eyes.
"I get an update every time they change his diaper ... I can see if he's drinking his bottles and how long he naps ... as a first-time mom, that's peace of mind," Malone said. "And the pictures they send are such a day-brightener. It helps bridge the gap of being at work and having that time with him personally."
On the heels of web cameras in child care centers, "nanny cams" in the home and GPS locators attached to a child's backpack, baby trackers such as Baby Connect are the newest tool in a parent's arsenal for monitoring their child's daily activities while they're away. But some parenting experts caution that this could be the gateway app for helicopter parents.
With Baby Connect, parents and caregivers are able to communicate with each other about the details of a child's day with the click of a button. Parents report feeling confident about the care their child is receiving and less guilty about missing out on important milestones. If they choose, they can even receive videos when their child learns to walk or say a new word.
"We're constantly looking at ways to create a strong connection from our centers to our parents," said Cara Johnson-Bader, director of parent experiences for Kinderberry Hill and New Horizon Academy, which will also eventually be using Baby Connect. "It's a logical step with today's technology to be able to communicate with families immediately."
Parents say it's practical
While it may seem distracting for your phone to "ding" every time your child makes a new friend or eats a cracker, the parents using the technology say otherwise.
Conrad and Kristi Wasmer were using Baby Connect at home well before their 19-month-old daughter went to daycare. The program came in handy to track her feeding and sleeping schedules as a newborn. The couple still uses it to log medications, growth charts and milestones, and tailors the notifications function of the application so they aren't getting updates from the child care center every hour.
"I'm not micromanaging her," the Minneapolis father said. "Someone else is in charge and taking care of her. They're just letting me know what's going on."
The app works this way: If a child needs medicine, the teacher logs in to the application, selects the child, then the "medical" icon. From there, the teacher can select from a list of medications or list their own, and choose the dosage and time the medication was administered. Other than adding extra "notes," very little typing is required. Once the teacher saves and exits the application, parents receive an update to their phone or computer.
Parents and day care providers can also send messages to one another through the device to communicate such things as pick-up times or if a parent just wants some reassurance that their child is feeling well.
While communication about what a child is doing at day care reduces fear and brings peace of mind, some parenting experts are divided over the use of such technologies, with some arguing that it's helpful for parents to feel connected while others say they "can be a trap" and caution against getting into a long-term pattern of continually monitoring their child's every move.
"It could lead to some micromanaging of the child care center, which is called hyper-parenting, a phenomenon where parents want to coach the coach on how to play their child, and they want to intervene for them about their college grades and they increasingly want to negotiate the benefits when they get their first job after college," said Bill Doherty, a professor of Family Social Science at the University of Minnesota. "If a parent wants to use this app, my suggestion is to do it early on, then wean yourself off after a number of days or weeks ... once you feel confident your child is being well taken care of."
According to Kathryn "Jo" Behm, adjunct professor in St. Catherine University's Family, Consumer and Nutritional Science Department, for most parents, the more information, the better. After years of teaching a class where students are asked to interview parents who use child care and hearing stories of neglect and abuse, Behm isn't surprised that parents are going to the lengths they are to track their kids.
"At least it gives parents some security to know how their child is doing and how that child is being treated and handled," Behm said.
But what about the day care providers who have to track all of that information?
"That was my red flag immediately," Behm said. "My only concern is if the child care provider is spending time on the app, then how often is it taking away from their time with the child?"
Day care providers using such programs as Baby Connect say this paperless version of charting a child's day as it happens is actually more efficient and comprehensive than sitting down at the end of the day to complete a written report. They say the application can be operated with one hand on the phone -- or in Kinderberry Hill's case, an iPod Touch -- so they can log items while holding a child. Plus, there are always at least two child care providers to every group of kids so that one can use the app while the other keeps an eye on the children.
"The old paper charts we used to do would sometimes get lost on the way home, but now, with one click, you have a view of the whole day right in front of you at all times," said Krystyna Luczak, a lead teacher at the Plymouth Kinderberry Hill. "The technology shows you that what we're saying is true. You know your baby is happy because you can see a picture of her smiling face."
Aimée Tjader • 612-673-1715