The XX Factor

Tech Companies Love to Invent Pregnancy Gadgets That Most Women Don’t Really Need

Connecting with their baby, no gadgets required.

Thinkstock/ monkeybusinessimages

I only had to make it through the lede of a recent SFGate story on Bloomlife, a new wearable device that measures uterine contractions during pregnancy, for my suspicions to be aroused. In it, an eight-and-a-half-months pregnant woman named Molly attaches the device to her belly and discovers that she is having mild, and likely perfectly normal, contractions. “[W]ithout the device … and its corresponding app, she probably would have just passed the faint tightness in her belly off as nothing,” the article asserts.

As the story proceeds, we never learn what exactly Molly plans to do with this information—only that possessing such knowledge has given her “more peace of mind.” “I know that things are working, and doing what they are supposed to be doing,” she explained to the reporter.

Bloomlife is a small sensor that women can tape to their bellies during the third trimester. It costs $149 to rent for one month, or less per month if you want to use it for a longer period of time. By measuring electrical signals from the uterine muscle and sending the information to an app, the device can monitor the length, time, and strength of both Braxton Hicks contractions (which are mild and occur throughout healthy pregnancies) and labor contractions. The goal, according to its manufacturers, is to “empower moms” and provide them with “peace of mind” by giving them a better of idea of when labor begins and how quickly it is progressing. Yes, women can do this themselves by timing the duration of and distance between contractions, but Bloomlife says it’s more precise.

The gadget is, according to SFGate, one of many in a rapidly expanding tech market aimed at pregnant women. In 2011, no company focused on women’s health raised more than $2 million in funding. By the end of 2015, nine companies collectively raised $82 million, including $26 million for pregnancy-focused apps.

While I, pregnant for the second time, would be eager to try out something that would actually make my life easier, I’ve found that few of these multi-million dollar ideas seem to do that. Instead, most of them are like Bloomlife, and can be generally relied on to invent a new need, or neurosis, instead of fulfilling a previously existing one. There’s this misconception among tech companies that the more data a woman has about the ongoings of her uterus, the better off she is. “It’s a way to connect with her pregnancy a little more, and a way to decode those weird pregnancy sensations she might be feeling,” Eric Dy, one of the two male founders of Bloomlife, told SFGate. But data without context can easily end up fueling concern. “[J]ust because you can measure it doesn’t mean that is useful data,” Bob Wachter, an expert on digital health care and chairman of the Department of Medicine at UCSF, told SFGate. “There is a lot of stuff in medicine that we don’t know what it means, and (how) to understand and interpret it correctly,” he said. “There is a reason why people go through years of training.”

As a six-months pregnant woman, I resent the assumption that women are always looking for a way to further connect with their pregnancy. Those fetuses are quite competent at making their presence known without the assistance of little gadgets. There are the mostly lovely kicks and twirls coming from within the uterus, and a panoply of less-than-lovely symptoms outside the uterus, including back pain, indigestion, and exhaustion. Add to this the many doctor’s appointments, ultrasounds, and tests I must work into my schedule, along with the plans my husband and I have to make for the arrival of our newborn. These days, I’m more in the market for something that allows me to connect a little less with my pregnancy—like Netflix.

The Bloomlife website features testimonials from users, a few of whom claim that the device saved them unnecessary, and sometimes expensive, trips to the hospital. While that might certainly be the case in high-risk scenarios, I can just as easily imagine the device prompting low-risk moms to make unnecessary trips to the hospital because the chart on their app made them nervous—even when they feel fine. Ultimately, no gadget can replace a doctor or midwife, who should be phoned whenever something feels strange and will advise patients accordingly. In some circumstances, including those in which a risk for preterm birth has been established, an at-home monitor like Bloomlife may be useful. But it’s probably best to let a medical professional determine whether that is necessary, and what a pregnant woman should be looking out for should they decide she needs to wear one.

Bloomlife’s aspirations transcend helping individual women. The mission section of the Bloomlife website states that the device will allow the company to “crowdsource the largest and most comprehensive dataset on maternal and fetal health ever collected” and help doctors gain insight into preterm birth. Such births are indeed a public health issue, but the populations in which they are most likely to occur—including those with low and high maternal age, black women, those with low income or socioeconomic status, and those who receive poor prenatal care—are probably not those most likely to shell out $150 a month for the latest wearable. Bloomlife might crowdsource its way to the “largest and most comprehensive dataset” ever in human history, but if the crowd isn’t representative of those most likely to experience preterm birth, how much good can it do?