photo by David Goehring
My wife: Anthony, can you smell Luke and see if he pooped?
Me: (sniff, sniff) Yep! He pooped! It’s a bad one – your turn.
For anyone still reading after that exchange, congratulations – you must be somewhat interested in poop, diapers or parenting. That or you’re just too curious to turn away.
In either case you, like me, are the ideal audience for an unlikely tech news story. While listening to NPR recently, I encountered the latest offering in the world of “smart” products: Bluetooth-enabled diapers.
I double-checked, and this was not a joke on “Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me.” The story was a Marketplace report on a device that Huggies launched in Korea, which may soon arrive in the United States. For the low price of about $250, parents can attach a sensor that will send a text to their phones whenever their child’s diaper goes from fresh to not-so-fresh.
As a father of three, including a pair of twins, advances in diaper technology are right up my alley. But is this a product anyone really needs?
Whether parents need this product or not, diaper-makers do. The falling birth rate means that Huggies and its rivals have struggled to cope with declining sales. According to Nielsen, diaper sales in physical stores fell nearly 6% between 2016 and 2017. Kimberly-Clark, Huggies’ maker, announced in January 2018 that it would shutter 10 of its manufacturing plants and lay off around 13% of its workers to try to cut costs. After seven years of a declining U.S. birth rate, diaper sales continue to lag, leaving companies looking to recoup lost profits in other ways. Technology seems to be the answer.
As journalist Michael Waters told Marketplace, modern diapers are already highly engineered. Since disposable diapers first arrived in the late 1940s, manufacturers have spent billions of dollars on research and development. Companies have since introduced a variety of features to try to attract consumers, from increased comfort to reduced environmental impact. Today vendors struggle to differentiate themselves in a market where, as Waters observed, there is not a huge practical difference between products and brands.
Huggies is not the only brand that has landed on technology as the next step in the diaper arms race. Alphabet, Google’s parent company, submitted a patent last year for a diaper laced with carbon fiber that could alert parents about a baby’s urination or bowel movements. Pixie Scientific, a health care company, has been testing smart diapers since 2013, and a few Chinese companies are also researching designs. The idea is that, as with smart toothbrushes and razors, smart diapers will appeal to consumers at the top end of the market.
The version Huggies debuted in Korea is a removable sensor, rather than a built-in feature of the diaper itself. Even so, I am skeptical that many parents are clamoring for smartphone alerts about the state of their children’s diapers. And I am not the only one.
Of course, some people feel a need for the newest gadget, regardless of its actual usefulness. Will automation bias extend to diapers for such parents? It is always possible. But as a financial planner, I can’t help but think these parents might do better to forgo the smart diaper sensor and save a little extra money for other expenses. They could stash that $250 in a 529 savings account and let it grow; given the rising costs of education, it is probably a smarter move.
Like most entries in the “internet of things,” smart diapers also involve giving data to a company in exchange for convenience. Tony Park, who developed the Bluetooth sensor in the Huggies product, explained to Vox that the sensor provides data back to the manufacturer – not about your child’s biology, but about the number diapers you use on a monthly or annual basis. It is easy to imagine how this might go even further. Perhaps companies will collect data on the average time it takes you to change the diaper after the initial alert, and then market diaper rash cream to you if that average time is too long. Such data collection may or may not bother you. But as with many internet services, convenience comes at the cost of participating in the big data economy.
Some parents have also raised concerns about safety issues. Surrounded by news stories about lithium ion batteries and smartphones spontaneously combusting, these parents are hardly unreasonable for wondering how safe it is to attach a wireless device to their babies’ diapers. While there is no evidence that fire safety is an issue, the devices do use Bluetooth technology. Research results have been mixed, but most experts say the radio frequency energy from Bluetooth is so weak that it poses less risk than regularly using a cellphone. However, less risk is not no risk. There is still a lot that we don’t know about the long-term effects of repeated exposure, especially for infants and toddlers. This uncertainty is enough to make certain parents uneasy.
It is also worth noting that while diaper manufacturers face pressure to justify ever-more expensive diaper costs to consumers, a significant proportion of American parents struggle to pay for diapers at all. About one-third of parents can’t afford diapers already, Waters told Marketplace. The problem is widespread enough that Congress introduced legislation in March designed to support struggling low-income parents. While there are organizations working to help – Huggies is a founding sponsor of the National Diaper Bank Network, for example – it is hard to avoid wondering whether increasing the cost of some diapers will pressure a larger number of parents’ budgets.
The smart diaper from Huggies is set to arrive in North America in August. While smart diapers may be a smart idea for manufacturers, they are less so for parents. My wife and I recently ended our diaper days, but I feel comfortable stating that most parents should stick to checking diaper status the old-fashioned way: the sniff test.