Ah, sleep. How I miss thee. Six months into a new baby, the memory of unbroken slumber is like some half-remembered dream, which is ironic, because I never seem to be unconscious long enough to actually have dreams anymore.
That babies are tiny sleep-killers isn't news. But in recent years, a glut of new start-ups has emerged from Silicon Valley promising to help them fall asleep faster and stay asleep longer. Many are backed by innovative science and smart tech; many more are targeted at the sleep-deprived, extremely suggestible parent's wallet (a mystical berry spray that guarantees he'll sleep for eight hours? Take my money!).
Figuring out the difference isn't always easy. Having a child is, clearly, an extremely subjective experience. When you're sat up at 4am, it's impossible to know if your exhaustion levels are normal or not, whether your child is more fractious than his peers or if, in fact, you're having it easy, even when it doesn't feel like it.
But if context is hard to come by, it's easy to find tools that promise to coach you and your child through those months of broken, then less broken, then finally, unbroken sleep. Some are simple, others smart, and among the techiest you'll find Nanit, a baby monitor-cum-sleep consultant that keeps tabs on everything from room temperature to wriggling to your baby's breathing patterns, in order to figure out what works, what doesn't and how to make their sleep better.
First, it's important to point out that, as a baby monitor, the Nanit is fantastic. The camera is a palm-sized piece of smooth, white plastic – like a GoPro that went to work for Tesla – which beams hi-def video and audio direct to your phone. Compared to the jerky, grainy video you get on traditional (and, let's be honest, less expensive) baby monitors, it's like watching your kid in HD. Its night vision mode is particularly impressive, enabling you to spot the precise moment their eyes snap open so you can rush in and soothe them back to sleep before the screaming starts.
The camera body also contains sensors for humidity and temperature, both of which are vital for creating the comfortable environment that promotes extended – and safe – sleep (rooms that are too cold mean babies wake more easily, whereas hot rooms are linked to an increase risk of SIDS). Out of the box it comes with a stand that sits beside the crib and monitors your wee one from above, although there's also an optional travel stand that means you don't have to squeeze a two metre-long pole into your suitcase.
What makes this a smart baby monitor, however, is the way Nanit tracks your baby's movements to send you alerts when they start wriggling especially violently, which generally means a wake-up is imminent. A sound sensor will also pick up cries and notify you, so you don't always have to have the screen on in order to know when they need attention.
That's important, because unlike a baby monitor with a dedicated receiver, Nanit works via an app. There are pluses and minuses here. It means that multiple caregivers can tune in without needing to share a box, although it does also mean that, if you do leave them with a babysitter, there'll always be the nagging temptation to ruin your evening by endlessly checking on how they're sleeping. There's also the issue that if your phone runs out of battery and you don't notice, then you don't have a baby monitor. However, you don't have to have the screen running constantly, as Nanit has a background audio mode that means you can listen in even when your phone's locked, or if you're using other apps. That said, if you're using the Nanit's onboard white noise machine, then it's hard to hear much else over the top of it. Loud cries will break through, but your phone will constantly sound like it's tuned between radio stations.
If you're the kind of parent who nips into their sleeping baby's room every 20 minutes to make sure their chest is still moving up and down, Nanit comes with an optional breathing-tracker, which uses a band with a specially calibrated pattern of dots to make sure that everything's as it should be. If it isn't, you'll get an emergency warning, your heart rate will spike and you'll run like the wind to make sure they're still alive. Odds are they've pulled a blanket over the band. In practice, we found that the security wasn't worth the fear and we gave up on the band pretty swiftly, but paranoid parents might appreciate the safety net.
As with all modern tech, Nanit is also tracking your baby and crunching that data into a set of insights that you can use to figure out how to make them sleep better. Now, I sit firmly in the less-is-more camp when it comes to this kind of thing – data is only as useful as what you make of it, and my experience of sleep trackers for adults is just that they tell you stuff you can't really do anything about, which worries you into a state of sleeping even less. And there's a degree of this with the Nanit. The data section will tell you whether they slept well or not, how often they woke up and for how long, but you'll know this instinctively because you'll either feel like you've been hit by a ton of bricks, or reversed over by a lorry loaded with bricks. Based on the information it accrues, Nanit will also provide tailored sleep tips, although it didn't suggest anything we hadn't already picked up through studious reading. At times, the advice just felt patronising, especially when it chided me for putting the baby in his crib asleep even though we'd sat through 20 minutes of ear-splitting crying before he finally dropped off.
But hey, we're all living in Jeff Bezos's quantified world now. Maybe it's best to get your kid used to it right from the off.
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