Yakima-based innovator and mother of two Monica Plath didn’t pull the idea for the Littlebird Toddler CareTracker from thin air.
She pulled it from experience. The seed for Littlebird was sown the day two other technologies alerted her to the fact that her young son had been left alone inside her home by his sitter.
“I think any parent has that first reservation when anyone outside the family is watching their kid,” Plath says. “But I did everything I thought that I was supposed to be doing in terms of the background check. I checked the reviews, I spoke with referrals, who told me this one woman was an angel on Earth. I thought I had found the right fit.”
That awful feeling
But a few days into this new in-home childcare scenario, Plath got a notification from her Ring home security camera.
“She was pulling out of my driveway,’ says Plath. “I was like ‘What is going on?’ Then I went and looked at the baby monitor connected to my phone and saw my son wasn’t in his room. And she wasn’t answering her phone.
“It was just that awful pit feeling in your stomach,” she adds.
Plath raced home and found her child unharmed. The nanny offered no plausible explanation for leaving the toddler unattended and was fired. At the same time, Plath realized she was staring at a gaping hole in the fabric of information wrapped around her life.
A missing link
“I realized everything in my life is connected. I’m connected to my house (Ring). I’m connected to his nursery (monitor). I’m connected to my dog (with walker apps like Rover and Wag). I’m connected to my friends and family,” says Plath. “But, for some reason, there’s this huge gap of information about my little person, this one who is my heart outside my body.
“I thought, ‘How is it that we are not connected during these most formative years? It just clicked.”
Littlebird Toddler CareTracker, a wearable toddler tracker and tracking app, lets parents know exactly where their kids are at all times, who they are with, how they are doing emotionally and physiologically while in the care of others and whether a caregiver is within sight range of a child. The wristband records a child’s sleep patterns, activity level, temperature and heart rate. The technology also reminds sitters to keep parents in the loop with status reports, child mood assessments, photos, timeline updates and other functions.
Soothing a big parent ache
Such information, Plath says, keeps kids safe and helps assuage the guilt many working parents feel leaving their kids in the care of others. At the same time, it connects them to childhood milestones, health markers and memories they might otherwise miss when they can’t be with their children.
“I was just trying to feel that my children were safe,” Plath, told GeekWire earlier this year. “I wanted to know that they were happy. Just the really primal needs that any parent has when you’re trying to juggle two lives. You want to be a really good mother. You need to provide for your family, and to feel good about the care choices that you’re making.”
No, it’s not about paranoia
Although a moment of fear hatched the idea for the Yakima-based company, Plath says tracking kids is not an outsized notion to soothe paranoid parents. It’s the norm. More and more parents are relying on Airtags, Jiobits and other GPS tracking devices to keep abreast of their kids’ whereabouts.
In fact, this year Seattle Public Schools contracted with bus service provider Zum, to deliver half of the district’s bus-riding students to school. With Zum’s bus and driver tracking app, parents can see where their kids are – and who’s driving them – at any given time during the ride to and from school.
So why the need for another device?
“There are tracking devices that you can put on someone or in a shoe or something like that, but there’s nothing in them telling you that they’re okay, nothing that’s tying you to your child’s biomedical wellness,” says Plath, a University of Washington graduate who grew up in Snoqualmie Valley.
Littlebird Toddler CareTracker’s health monitoring functions were a primary selling point for Tara Kampfer, mom to 3-year-old Teddy.
“Teddy was born with congenital heart disease, so being able to keep track of his heart rate helps my piece of mind,” Kampfer says. “And also being able to give the information to our doctor if he needs it.”
Delivering what parents want
“Parents want more information about their child,” Plath adds. “I want to feel present while I’m apart.”
North Bend mother of two Cortney Kari says Littlebird has done just that for her.
“I am in and out of meetings or on and off the phone most days, so the convenience of opening the app and taking a quick peek at the location of my kiddos is really comforting,” she says. “I often find myself taking a quick peek when my son should arrive at school. It allows me, as a working mom, to feel connected and know he made it to the start of his school day. I also love being able to see pictures and updates.”
Future expansion to daycare centers and other care scenarios
Currently the Littlebird Toddler CareTracker and app system is limited to use by parents and their in-home childcare providers. But the company expects to be integrated into other child care settings in the near future. The technology already allows for the tracking of multiple kids in the care of one provider. That capability, along with health monitoring features, was one Plath tried hard to find in trackers already on the market. But, she kept coming up short.
Watching the watchers?
Plath is quick to dismiss any description of Littlebird as “a sitter for sitters.”
She stresses that her company worked with and continues to gather input from both caregivers and parents to ensure Littlebird serves caregivers as much as families. Caregivers, she says, want parents to view them as the professionals they are and understand what they do. In this way, Plath says, in-home child care should be no different than other professions where workers are expected to show their work – and be recognized and compensated for work well done.
“It’s not them being monitored,” Plath says. “It’s them wanting to facilitate information for parents.”
Plath says the nannies and other caregivers who helped the company develop and test Littlebird have told her they need a platform for showing rather than merely telling parents about the care they provide.
Reducing anxiety of parents, kids and providers
Sitters involved in Littlebird’s beta rollout this year declined to be interviewed, but Kari says for her family the device and system are about connection and teamwork, not about looking over the shoulders of caregivers.
“My son has his own anxieties about going to school, and knowing he is wearing something where mom and dad know where he is, is not only comfort for us, but to him as well,” Kari says. “This device allows such an organic interaction between caregiver and parents, itt allows them to feel like a team.”
Plath says the days of rushed information exchanges at the end of a long care day are “kind of over.”
“I really stay away from helicopter parenting,” Plath says, both of herself as a parent and of the Littlebird system. “I want to empower and support my caregivers. I want them to know that I care about them, not just as an employee, but as an integral part of my family system.”
She adds that several of the device’s beta families are using Littlebird even when child care is not in play.
“My husband plays professional hockey,” says Kampfer. “We decided to use the tracker due to the fact we move so often and come across a lot of changes in child care. But we are in arenas frequently, where Teddy loves to run off. We just wanted the reassurance that we always knew where our son was, along with being able to see his metrics.”
Connection across long distances
Plath believes Littlebird can be a useful tool for keeping parents who are far from home – military personnel, parents who travel for work, or parents co-raising children in separate homes – connected and in tune with their kids when they are apart.
No flashing lights
The Littlebird Toddler CareTracker is designed not to draw the attention of children wearing them.
“One of the things we love most about the Littlebird tracker is the absence of distractions,’’ says Kari. “It does not have an interactive screen which is what we found with other devices that are on the market already. They are both in school and are there to learn and create relationships. The last thing we wanted for them was another device/screen causing distraction.”
The Littlebird Toddler CareTracker and accompanying app is sold out for 2022, but the company is taking pre-orders for 2023. The system sells for $299 and includes a year of free cellular connectivity and $15/month thereafter.
The device is intended for children ages 1 to 5.
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