Thursday, May 29, 2008

Data-driven parenting

As an economist, I like to base as many decisions as possible on hard data. Obviously, most of the time, such data isn't available. But when it is, instinctively I want to latch right onto it.

For instance, take this short snippet from the 'book only' material in Chapter 2 of Parentonomics describing the contraction-measuring machine during labour:
... [t]hat machine – which I lovingly called the ‘contraction-meter’ – kept me amused and interested through the many hours of labour. I would sit next to it and watch the printed readout. Most of the time nothing much happened. Then suddenly a seismic event would register. I would remark, ‘Ooh, that was a big one. Did you feel that?’ A whimpered reply would follow. I may have not been feeling her pain, but I was at least on top of the statistics.
Every economist I know has similarly fond memories of that machine including women who would ask for a read-out after each contraction.

But following that there has been a dearth of data to assist in parenting. The children's mother is an engineer and a data-lover herself. Indeed, I think her job description is "doings things with Excel." She tried to rectify our lack of data by keeping records on height and weight in Excel. This allowed for some inter-sibling comparisons but little else.

So imagine my delight this morning when I received an email from Ben MacNeill. Ben was a stay-at-home dad who recognised that lack of data in parents' lives. So he build a web service, Trixie Tracker, that allows parents to record and revisit information on sleep, nappy changes, feeding (both breast-milk and solids), medicines and pumping. You can then go back and see how things have been going. Just check out the information in sleep tracking. And there are even stories of how this has helped parents:

Nico is my 4th son but the first one whose sleep was so out of whack. He slept 8hrs/night straight for the first 5 months but hardly napped and when he started napping, his night times went awful.

I started tracking him at 7 months using TT so I could see any patterns developing, see how much actual sleep he was getting, and have records to back up what I suspected. By 20 months, even my pedi had to agree that he was not getting an average amount of sleep and that it was time to start delving deeper into things and we were referred to a developmental pedi. After talking to him and a behaviorist pedi, we were finally referred to a sleep specialist neurologist. I was able to show him our records for months so he could see the patterns (or in our case, the lack of them) and how long it would take to put him down at night.

He was able to see what our problems were and see that we really had done everything behaviorally that we could do and recommended putting our son on melatonin. With that, his average sleep has gone from 9hrs/day to almost 10½hrs/day but none of that would have been nearly as easy to get done if I hadn’t had all the records right at my fingertips to show the doctors at every step of the way. My son is much happier now that he gets more sleep and we are as well.

I can't tell you how much we would have loved this service had it been available when our kids were younger. The diaper activity information would have been really helpful for us when Child No.1 (between 3 and 4 months) would only go once every 5 days. Early in the cycle we could leave the house without nappies! The solids and sleep data could have been correlated for us to identify the fact that our son's digestive system was keeping him awake at 5 months and that we had been too loose with introducing new foods. Finally, for years our house was dedicated to the production and storage of breast-milk. To say that this inventory tracking system could not have been put to good use is an under-statement.

Now you might say, who has the time to keep this information? Well, it looks pretty easy. You can even do it from an iPhone so you don't have to be near a computer. To my mind, not keeping adequate records when you have a tool like this is criminal neglect! (Of course, you'll need to pony up a $4 per month fee for Trixie Tracker but that is money well spent). You can even benchmark your child's data against the averaged and anonymous data gathered from others using the service. What more could anyone want? It almost makes me want to have another child just to do it right this time.

Sadly, our opportunities for data-analysis bliss and super-crunching our parenting appear to have passed. The site doesn't deal with issues beyond the toddler stage. But imagine a school age upgrade that allowed you to track academic and other milestones ...