The Crying Baby and the Sympathetic Fitbit

How a small piece of technology had a human-sized impact on a mother's relationship to her child.
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How a small piece of technology had a human-sized impact on a mother's relationship to her child.
From left: Stoic Fitbit (Photo: Fitbit); restless baby. (Photo: Gergely Vida/Flickr)

From left: Stoic Fitbit (Photo: Fitbit); restless baby. (Photo: Gergely Vida/Flickr)

I got the Fitbit a few months after I got the baby. They were each other’s opposite in almost every way. The baby was chubby, giggly magic; the Fitbit was sleek, emotionless science. In the middle of the night, I spent an inordinate amount of time gazing at both of them—my Fitbit and my baby.

The Fitbit was the Christmas gift I’d requested from my husband; an effort to undo one of my dear little son’s dismaying side effects—a 42-pound pregnancy-related weight gain.

The day it arrived on the front porch of our 120-year-old Oakland home last January, I quickly pulled it out of its sleek plastic packaging and fastened it on my wrist. Maybe, I hoped, this tiny personal trainer would encourage me to exercise harder, burn more calories, lose those pounds.

This worked well for the better part of the first week. I went for my first real jog, making a short loop past the nearby park and my daughter’s preschool, pausing every half block or so to check my step and calorie counts.

But that genuine burst of initial enthusiasm soon fizzled in the face of severe sleep deprivation. Whoever said bigger babies sleep better either never met my 24-pound eight month-old, or enjoys messing with gullible new parents. Ear infections, colds, teething, and a desire to be perpetually attached to your mother’s breast are not weight-related issues; that's what you call a fussy baby.

I had a new obsession; someone—or something—who finally understood.

At first, I wanted steps. But after crawling around next to my husband, picking up Legos and doll toys from the living room rug, after scraping my two-year-old daughter’s uneaten pasta into the compost bin, after begging both the baby and his sister to please show us some mercy and go to bed, did I want steps more than I wanted sleep? Did I want steps more than I wanted to sit on our secondhand leather couch and lose myself in my friends’ Facebook pages? Did I want steps more than I wanted to fold laundry and watch the Daily Show?

In any case, I soon realized that bouncing the baby to sleep (which I did for hours, day and night) actually netted far more steps than walking. I would smile—a little bit, wistfully, a little bit, ironically, a little bit exhaustedly—as we bounced and bounced and bounced, blowing past 20,000 steps without ever leaving the house.

At the same time, many of the steps I walked while pushing the double stroller over the uneven sidewalks of our neighborhood weren’t counted at all, since my wrist stayed stationary.


Early one morning, after waking for what felt like the 14th time since midnight—had I even slept at all?—I started scrolling through my phone, looking for distractions while I nursed the baby. I noticed another category on my Fitbit’s dashboard.

"How did you sleep?" it asked me. Then, without waiting for my response—which would typically fall on the continuum between a glazed look, a wan smile and a beleaguered sigh—it answered: On January 29th, it said, I had slept five hours and six minutes. During that period, I was awake five times and restless 10 times.

The baby was the main culprit, although his older sister was not entirely blameless. Suddenly, I had a new obsession; someone—or something—who finally understood.

Now, whenever the baby would wake at some godforsaken hour and start grinning and babbling while I studiously avoided eye contact, I felt a renewed sense of purpose: I’d roll over to examine my Fitbit dashboard. I found the dark blue rectangle (sleep) punctuated with pink lines (wake ups) and turquoise lines (restlessness) weirdly reassuring.

Fitbit dashboard. (Photo: Fitbit)

Fitbit dashboard. (Photo: Fitbit)

My sleep didn’t get any better just because Fitbit started quantifying how crappy it was. But I felt validated, if only by someone with a rechargeable battery for a heart. While I received plenty of clucking sympathy from family and friends, my new device gave me something arguably better: evidence.

Sure, I had more than a speck of guilt about succumbing to the modern obsession with data. I knew having a newborn was a magical time, one I would never get back. I knew two-year-olds eventually learned to sleep through the night (didn’t they?) and eventually grew up to be teenagers who didn’t require badly sung lullabies. Why mar the poetry of early motherhood with a meaningless series of statistics?

Perhaps because counting things—be it calories, steps, or hours of sleep—has always given me a sense of control, however illusory. I’ve always loved numbers. As a kid who hated car rides, I used to alleviate my boredom by mentally re-arranging the numbers on the car’s digital clock into mathematical equations. Now, in some strange, inexplicable way, all those pink and turquoise lines made me feel like I had accomplished something.

The baby, of course, had no interest in my data. Sometimes, at 4 a.m., he would try to swat at the tiny green light glowing on my wrist. He’d beam his most charming smile, dive in for more milk, then cheerfully announce: "Doh! Doh! Doh!"


Once the baby turned six months old, I went back to work. Soon after, I spent the night away from him for the first time.

Before I left, I counted and re-counted the bags of breast milk in the freezer, re-assuring myself that he wouldn’t starve in my absence. I stocked up on toddler-friendly snacks at Trader Joe's. I walked out the door, then walked back in, then walked out again.

In some strange, inexplicable way, all those pink and turquoise lines made me feel like I had accomplished something.

Finally, I made the 45-minute drive to the health journalism conference I was attending in Silicon Valley. With no kids in the back seat, the ride down was eerily quiet.

Even with half a year’s sleep deprivation under my belt, the conference was exciting and invigorating, re-awakening a part of my brain that had been dormant for a while. But, as much as I enjoyed the day’s presentations, the quiet hotel room that accompanied the conference was even better. I swiped my keycard into the door, walked in, and looked around. No crushed Cheddar Bunnies to dig out of the rug. No wooden blocks to accidentally step on. I set up my breast pump, counted my ounces, then climbed into a bed made up by someone else. At midnight, my head hit the pillow. Seven and a half hours later, I rolled over and looked at my Fitbit dashboard. There it was: A sea of dark blue, with just two tiny turquoise ripples. Beautiful.

Eventually, I knew, every night’s sleep would probably look like that again. Eventually, the Fitbit would count my steps and not my shuteye. In some ways, eventually couldn’t arrive soon enough. In other ways, it was zooming toward me too fast.

The next night, I returned home and tiptoed into my bedroom. Three minutes later, my tiny roommate requested my attention. I picked him up and inhaled his milk-urine-diaper-cream scent. For the most part, I’d missed him terribly. As we lay in the dark staring at one another, I couldn’t help but grin at him. This wasn’t so bad, I thought.

In the movie version of my life (or perhaps the bad-sitcom version), I then removed the Fitbit and hurled it across the room.

In the real version, I woke the next morning, rubbed my bleary eyes, and rolled over to assess the number of interactions the baby and I had the night before (14, as it happens). I dragged myself out of bed, and with both Fitbit and baby observing, took my first steps of the day.