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A child interacts with a robot during the China Yiwu International Manufacturing Equipment Expo 2017. Xinhua News Agency/PA Images
Future Focus

Robot babysitters and poop-predicting nappies: Here's the future of being a good parent

Sadly you’ll still have to do the actual nappy-changing yourself.

THE TASK OF raising a child will never be an easy one. If you’ve ever met a parent who said otherwise, it was probably accompanied by a sarcastic snort, or was a moment of madness brought on by sleep deprivation.

No matter what comes down the line in areas like health and technology, saying goodbye to your offspring on the first day of school will still be bittersweet and the first few weeks after a new human enters the world will still be overwhelming.

But there are a number of changes already taking place that will mean that in the coming years, the very nature of being a parent will change drastically.

Making babies

Conception is sometimes the first challenge faced by biological parents-to-be. While IVF is now relatively common, a new technology called in vitro gametogenesis – IVG – could make having a child more straightforward for people who are infertile.

Although it has only been successful in mice so far, cells taken from the skin or inside of the cheek could be converted into lab-made eggs and sperm. These could then be combined to create an embryo to be implanted in a womb.

This could help heterosexual couples having trouble conceiving, but it would also enable children to be born to just one biological parent, to same-sex couples where the child would get 50% of their DNA from each parent or even to more than two parents.

40 years of IVF Louise Brown, the world's first test tube baby, born in 1978. JONATHAN BRADY / PA Images JONATHAN BRADY / PA Images / PA Images

Although wider availability of IVG is ten years or more down the road and will likely be subject to a whole heap of ethical, moral and legal battles, the way parents and families manage day-to-day is already changing. 

Families now come in all shapes, sizes and ages, with the age of first-time parents on the increase. The average age for a mother to give birth in Ireland in 2015 was 32.5, compared to 30.8 in 2004. Gender roles are also progressing, with fathers now entitled to two weeks statutory parental leave in Ireland (though that’s far less than the EU average).

Omniscient parents

Age profiles and leave allowances aside, moving forward the tools we use to parent are likely to become a lot more high-tech.

The result? We’re going to know more about our babies than ever before. As our phones monitor everything about us, from our sleeping to our activity levels, similar levels of information gathering are starting right from the cradle.

Baby monitors with high-definition video, which are connected to apps and can connect to WiFi are entering the mainstream. The Nanit baby monitor might even help you lessen the frequency of sleepless nights, as it provides you with sleep insight reports for the baby, a sleep score, sleep tips, and an ability to track sleep so that you can see whether things are improving. Every morning, you can even watch a highlight reel of your child’s sleep from the night before.

30712237_784895868376107_2990557647708618752_n Nanit's cot display, viewed on an iPad. Facebook / Nanit Facebook / Nanit / Nanit

If you’re not quite that obsessed with your child’s sleeping patterns, there are plenty of other data sets to keep an eye on. Using integration with Alexa, the Project Nursery Smart Baby Monitor System can do things like log the amount of baby formula used, turn on white noise, re-order baby wipes and check room temperature, while you keep an eye on the cot through video from a safe distance.

And with the Owlet Smart Sock, you can monitor the baby’s heart rate and oxygen levels. Whether all of these things really need to be monitored in such detail for all children is a different question – however, if an app or monitor promises better sleep for parent and child, there are probably very few parents who wouldn’t be tempted to give it a try.

Nappies that tell you when they need changing

Smart nappies could also make that particular aspect of child-raising a bit less frustrating. There are currently several companies in the US offering ‘smart diapers’ which use reusable sensors which will give you a phone notification if the nappy needs to be changed.

Some apps will also record the time and frequency of your child’s toilet habits and predict their next ‘movement’, which could help with toilet training – although it’s not going to make it any more pleasant.

Although at the moment smart nappies generally require the sensors to be reattached each time, ElderSens, which creates smart nappies for adults, unveiled a low-cost disposable version this year which will likely be carried into the baby market too.

Robot babysitters

While you may not find a robot who’ll look after a freshly filled nappy, companionship and babysitting are tasks that could be partially managed by machine moving forward.

The iPal, which was unveiled at CES Asia this year, is human-like, as tall as a 5-year-old and will keep an eye on your child. It’s also linked to an app on the parent’s phone which allows them to hear and see everything.

36554255_2015526752096833_5398552412493447168_n A child plays with a group of iPals at an AvatarMind conference stand. Facebook / AvatarMind Facebook / AvatarMind / AvatarMind

As well as keeping parents informed, the iPal can tell jokes, speak two languages and offer maths classes. Co-founder of AvatarMind Robot Technology Tingyu Huang said the robot is intended to be a companion for little ones. “When a child sees it, he or she will think of the robot as a friend, as another child in the family,” said Huang, perhaps somewhat optimistically.

It’s unlikely that many parents would let a young child be babysat by a robot right now, but it’s conceivable that a creation like the iCal could be used an extra pair of eyes in the room, or a way to entertain a child as the humans deal with tasks like nappy changing or tidying up.

The screen time debate

If you find yourself arguing over what constitutes a suitable amount of screen time with your child now, parents in 20 years might have it even harder. A study in Ireland by CenterParcs this year showed that children spend an average of three hours every day on devices.

Of the parents surveyed, 83 per cent found the use of technology and social media in the home to be “a challenge”. However, a concept video produced by Fisher-Price and Continuum in 2016 predicted that the future of children’s toys is likely to feature displays that go beyond the limitations of a screen. 

Think nature-themed holograms that entertain your baby in the way a hanging mobile never could, or 3D printed toys designed to your child’s specifications.

Fisher-Price® / YouTube

“Thinking beyond the limitations of a screen means we’ll be able to create toys and everyday objects that will have the power to catalyze parent-child interactions, contextualize learning moments, and spark open-ended play,” Mark Zeller, head of design at Fisher Price, told Fast Company.

From colourful concepts to scientific advances, parents will have the opportunity to embrace technology in countless ways: whether it’s a positive that enables them to have children as they choose and to monitor their child’s health and sleep, or whether it’s something simpler like cutting down on childminding costs. But we’re still waiting for that nappy-changing robot…

More: Goodbye gym guilt, hello exercise pills? The future of staying in shape>

More: Snore-killing earbuds and cuddling robots: the future of getting a good night’s sleep>

Gráinne Loughran
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