Oh, poop. Baby tech rattles a dad-to-be

An expectant father goes on a mission at CES 2016 to see if new "smart" tech can make him a better parent. The answer? Yes. And no.

CES offered its first Baby Tech Summit this year, underscoring a growing interest in smart baby-care goods.

Roger Cheng/CNET

A few months ago, my wife and I went into a Buy Buy Baby store, ready to spend some money and score the necessary gear for our upcoming adventure in parenthood. Two hours later, we left emotionally and physically drained, clueless and overwhelmed.

We haven't been back since.

Rather than brave another store visit, I decided to take a smarter approach to the business of buying baby stuff. So I went where all tech journalists go to seek the answers to life: CES.

That, at least, is how I justified leaving my pregnant wife to spend six days in the booze- and neon-filled city of Las Vegas during the world's largest tech conference. Surely, what we were looking for was there.

She gave me a dry look and made one request: "Just find me a good baby monitor."

Finding the right baby-care product at CES isn't a completely ridiculous idea. One of the themes of this year's show is the smartening up of everyday items so they can communicate with one another, a broader concept called the Internet of Things. It's only natural that the desire to connect "dumb" things, like refrigerators and door locks, would extend to the realm of diapers and onesies.

In fact, the market has generated enough interest that CES held its first Baby Tech Summit at this year's show. About a dozen small exhibitors shared half a ballroom with the Beauty Tech Summit. It was a modest start but likely marked the beginning of a trend as people spend more and more on babies. Annual spending on infant care worldwide could reach $67 billion by 2017, up from $45 billion in 2011, according to statistics compiler Statista.

So for the past six days I checked out everything from smart thermometers to connected changing stations to, yes, baby monitors that feed data, photos and videos directly to the phone of a proud (and anxious) parent.

"New parents are open to tech," Aliëtte van der Wal, an executive at baby-products maker Philips Avent, said during a Thursday panel discussion on baby tech. "The numbers are growing and it's fueling the industry."

I want it in my phone

As someone who plays with gadgets and apps all day, I'm accustomed to getting a constant stream of data delivered to my phone, whether it's about my personal finances or how many steps I take. So I expect the same kind of convenience when it comes to baby-care equipment, complete with data being delivered via cute graphics or colorful charts.

"Millennial parents are very interested in data," said Ann Crady Weiss, co-founder and CEO of Hatch Baby. The company makes a $299 smart changing pad that measures a baby's weight and keeps a tally of the number of diapers changed. It also lets you log how messy those nappies are.


The Starling bills itself as the Fitbit for words.

Roger Cheng/CNET

There's Starling too, a star-shaped $249 tag that clips on to baby clothes and tracks how many words are spoken to the kid. (I learned here about the benefits of speaking to your baby from the minute of birth.) And there's Kinsa, a $20 under-the-tongue smart thermometer that logs your baby's temperature and can tell you if you should head to a doctor. The ear version costs $60.

With all these smart baby products, data is fed through the cloud to your phone, so you get charts showing your baby's progress.

Though the tech sounded great, I was also skeptical given that CES is known as the land of unfettered hype. And when it comes to your kid, can you really be objective? According to a 2010 USDA study, the average middle-income family in the US spends about $12,000 on baby-related stuff during the first year.

I was just as lost as ever.

Julia Wang, TheBump.com's site director, understood.

"As a first-time parent, you have no idea," she said as we chatted at the show. "Are you sold on stuff that you don't need?"

Change in perspective

Almost immediately after I found out my wife and I were expecting, I noticed a shift in my thinking. Concepts that had once been foreign -- and, frankly, scary -- soon became frequent topics of conversation. What's the right stroller to choose? How much poop gets everywhere?

During AT&T's annual presentation at CES, there's typically a segment when the company trots out developers to demonstrate the fruits of a marathon programming session. It's a part of the keynote I usually nap through. But this time around, two entries got my attention.

One was an app that tallies the chores your child does. The more chores that get done, the more perks that get "unlocked," like having power restored to a video game console or television. The level-up system works with AT&T's smart-home service to offer incentives for kids to clean up or to finish dinner.


The 4Moms Infant Car Seat makes for a well-adjusted child.

Sarah Tew/CNET

The second app lets you pause live TV and quiz your kids with trivia questions. Get the right answer, and the show proceeds.

"I could use these," I thought. Of course, it didn't matter that none of these apps would apply to my child for several years. But you lose a little perspective when it comes to your child, just like when I was in that baby-care store, zapping anything that remotely caught my eye with the laser registry gun. We need it all, darn it.

At CES this included, briefly, a self-latching car seat by 4Moms that adjusts to the correct position so your baby is always secure. "If you like products that make your life easier, this holds true for your baby," said Mara McFadden, 4Moms' director of product management.

I do like products that make my life better. Fortunately, when I told my wife about some of the gadgets I'd seen at the conference, she was more objective.

"No," she said of one. Of another: "This is stupid. Why would I buy this?"

We were both most interested in Owlet, a smart sock with a pulse sensor that captures a baby's heart rate and oxygen level. The data is sent to your phone and sounds an alarm if your baby stops breathing.

As for a baby monitor, TheBump.com's Wang suggested an iBaby device, which offers cameras with 360-degree views that feed images to your phone all day long.

And guess what? You can get one at Buy Buy Baby.

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