Screen Shot 2013-07-09 at 10.09.35 PMToday I learned about “smart diapers,” disposable diapers that have QR code indicators with colored sensors ready to detect not only wetness but risk of infection, dehydration, or kidney disease. Only a matter of time, I suppose, that infants’ clothing educates us about their health since it’s been just weeks since TweetPee, the diaper unveiled in Brazil that tweets parents when wet, was unleashed. By report, the smart diapers unveiled today will ring up at the register only 30% higher than a typical diaper. These highly capable diapers may therefore become mainstream whether we like it or not. Worried about your baby’s weird smelling pee and/or worried your infant is getting dehydrated during a bad illness? Just throw on a smart diaper for some insight. Not such a bad idea for a worried parent with a punky baby at 2am.

Formal self-tracking is thunderously augmenting human life as our experience with our bodies and health adapts to available technology. Mobile health apps (think Baby Tracker or Map My Run), self-trackers (think Fit Bit or Up), and devices (think smartphone camera) are continually providing us with new ways to assess and improve our self-awareness. Many Americans (infants to adults) self-track, or are being tracked, without knowing it. Susannah Fox, a researcher studying the intersection of technology and health care, introduced me to informal self-tracking last year when she mentioned the utility of “skinny jeans.” Each pair of skinny jeans out there in closets around America showcases the perfect tracking device for weight balance. We know just where we are when we try them on…

I saw a friend last week who showed me her son’s daycare app–throughout her workday she has constant access to his “feed”–how many ounces of milk he drank, his last dirty diaper, and live, uploaded photos of him on the play mat. These 2013 babies will grow up with a distinct digital timeline. A wealth of data to evaluate and mine, indeed. Yet while the genius of great tracking devices is ease of use and insignificant work for data transfer, the beauty of a smart diaper is that it may potentially alleviate parental concern in minutes.

Some quantified-self devices are clearly amazing. But I have just one hesitation on this one.

Most parents track their newborn eating and peeing habits from day one. Parenthood demands attention, intuition, insight, and detailed documentation of a child’s life. Only sensible that more and more devices will help choreograph how we do this. But at some point, it’s not more numeric data we need, rather we need ways to follow our children’s habits, trends, and cycles without quantifiable details. Parenting isn’t only about engineering how our babies eat and sleep, grow and develop, learn to smile or talk, rather it’s about building a bond and learning to interpret natural cues babies provide for their unique needs. At some point, we do get to rely on instinct.

Often, when babies have regained their birthweight and are 10-14 days old, I instruct families to dial the tracking down. I want new parents to gain confidence and appreciate the homeostasis with following a baby’s natural routine. Relying only on the numbers may cause parents to miss out on the nearly unspeakable experience of parenting a new baby and all that a baby intimately communicates from the beginning. It’s better to look up at the sky to know if it’s raining than to consult the weather report on your iPhone.

Self-Tracking In America

Hesitations aside, self-tracking is hot and when used intuitively, devices can relieve suffering. Data from early 2013 from The Pew Research Center provides a confirmatory head nod from the adult public when it comes to self-tracking. They found

  • 60% of U.S. adults say they track their weight, diet, or exercise routine.
  • 33% of U.S. adults track health indicators or symptoms, like blood pressure, blood sugar, headaches, or sleep patterns.
  • 12% of U.S. adults track health indicators or symptoms for a loved one.

However, the Pew notes, tracking is often informal, just as I see in clinic with weight measurements, notepads of a baby’s wet diapers, etc.

  • 49% of trackers say they keep track of progress “in their heads.”
  • 34% say they track the data on paper, like in a notebook or journal.
  • 21% say they use some form of technology to track their health data, such as a spreadsheet, website, app, or device.

This question allowed multiple responses, but in sum: 50% of trackers record their notes in some organized way, such as on paper or using technology, and 44% of trackers do so only in their heads.

We’re gradually turning to devices to track our movement, sleep, diet, and ultimately our health. As a quasi-technophile and physician, I find this thrilling as we map the beginning of personalized, targeted, thoughtful health care of the future.

The smart diapers soon to be studied  for FDA approval may have significant utility in a hospital environment (monitoring or alerting staff and clinicians about potential infection or dehydration) and may potentially save money in the health space. But tell me, would you want these on your baby every day? What would you do with all this data and what would you do with those potential false alarms?

More on how these diapers work from Gizmodo.