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How a smartphone reshaped a new parent's life

Commentary: CNET's Stephen Shankland knew a smartphone would be a help with a new baby in the house. He didn't realize how much -- even that selfie-cam came in handy.

A new baby has arrived in the Konrad-Shankland household.
A new baby has arrived in the Konrad-Shankland household. Stephen Shankland/CNET

For new parents, smartphones and newborn babies are a match made in heaven.

Ten years ago, just before our first son was born, I got my first mobile phone so my wife and I could stay in touch before and after the baby arrived. Now, with the arrival of our second son, the era of flip phones, voice calls and dial-pad text-messaging looks like the dark ages.

Smartphones have become an essential tool for modern living, but over the years, I'd mostly settled into a comfortable routine of smartphone tasks: e-books, social networking, messaging, email, navigation, podcasts and photography. When our second son arrived last December, I broke out of that routine and gained a new appreciation for the versatility of smartphones.

I live many hours a day behind the screen of a networked device, and for years, I'd prefer to slide behind my laptop screen rather than pick up my phone. The laptop shows more, the keyboard is vastly faster for typing and the hardware is much more powerful when it's time to edit photos.

But guess what? I can't work holding a laptop in one hand and a baby in the other. And I can't use a keyboard when I'm sitting on the bed with a sleeping infant on my lap.

I know smartphones are on the rise. But until that baby pried me away from my laptop, I didn't realize just how much. That rise in utility is important, given that for much of the world's population, a smartphone likely is the only option when it comes to computing devices.

I expected phones to be good for taking baby pictures, watching tutorials on swaddling, researching medical matters, keeping health records, video chatting with faraway relatives and sending a birth announcement from the hospital. But here are some of the areas where I didn't expect phones would play as much of a role in my baby-infused life.

Work

These days, it's hard to separate work hours from nonwork hours. That's especially true if, like me, you work from home in France and many of your colleagues and business contacts are in the US and working during Europe's evening and late night.

My one-handed phone-based productivity has improved considerably with practice. I can't whip through email as fast as with two hands and a PC, but tapping and swiping messages in the Gmail app works pretty well.

I've also discovered Android's voice recognition abilities. I now dictate emails, text messages and, with Google Docs, news stories. For somebody who's used to jumping around a document when composing, the linear nature of dictation takes some getting used to. But it beats poking one-handed at a laptop or smartphone.

I spend a lot of time typing on my phones, too. Right now I'm using a Google Nexus 5, larger Nexus 6, and an in-between Alcatel OneTouch Idol 3 . The smaller Nexus 5 works better for one-handed typing -- but over and over I find myself reaching for the bigger phones because the larger screen is so much more useful when you're reading email, e-books, Facebook pages, Twitter feeds and just about anything else. I wasn't sold on phablets before, but now I am -- as long as I remember to avoid a couple of pairs of pants with the smaller pockets.

Electronic eyes

I didn't expect this at all, but the selfie cam on the front of my phones is now useful for something other than vanity shots. I use it to see if the kid hidden away in the baby carrier on my front is asleep or not.

Back in the dark ages, parents on a walk with a baby lashed on didn't always know if the kid was asleep. But now, a phone's selfie-cam can answer that question. Left: no. Right: yes.
Back in the dark ages, parents on a walk with a baby lashed on didn't always know if the kid was asleep. But now, a phone's selfie-cam can answer that question. Left: no. Right: yes. Stephen Shankland/CNET

And one co-worker sings the praises of Dropcam's app, which lets him check whether crying episodes in the middle of the night are blips or something warranting more parental attention.

A networked camera is also good for more serious communications. When some red spots appeared on our baby, we snapped a photo and emailed it to our pediatrician. He blamed early-season mosquitoes, not chicken pox.

And the phone helps my own eyes, too. I use its flashlight for diaper changes in the middle of the night and to figure out how to install the blasted car seat in our apartment building's all-but-pitch-dark garage.

The phone's camera is also really useful for preserving information. Our son's grandparents might prefer cute baby pictures, but cameras can record prescriptions, upcoming appointments and office phone numbers.

Nights and nap time

I read a lot of e-books. I've now turned countless pages during the inevitable pacing sessions trying to get our son back to sleep. I could do that with paperbacks or magazines -- but not in the middle of the night. I set my Kindle Reader software for white text on a black background and turn the screen as dim as it'll go.

I used to listen to podcasts when running or falling asleep. Now I've added another time into rotation: walking around the neighborhood with the baby strapped onto my belly (a good way to get him to sleep in the day). He's entered his grabby phase, now, though, so earbud wires are out of the question.

Another sleeping discovery was all the white-noise apps. Our son seems to do better with the faux rainstorms and rushing rivers -- especially with the Idol 3's superior speakers, which do a better job overpowering midday construction noise in our apartment building.

The downside: Screen time

Parents these days -- my wife and I included -- fret over how much time kids spend with computers, TVs, phones and tablets rather than interacting with humans, blocks and books. Our first son quickly took to iPhone entertainment as a small child, and now he plays Minecraft with his friends while connected over Skype. So when our new son's eyes track toward the glowing screens in the household, I worry how much I'm contributing to the problem.

But the smartphone has undeniable utility for a parent these days. I may try to keep it tucked away in a pocket while our son is awake, but there's no way it's vanishing altogether.