Data Mine

I Measure Every Single Thing My Child Does

And I track it on spreadsheets. Really—every single thing. Even every poop. And it makes me a better parent.

Parents with baby on couch.
Let’s add this to the spreadsheet

Photo by Pixland/Thinkstock

My obsession with quantifying my kid started while I was still pregnant. I was giving birth for the first time at age 35, and modern medicine had invented a new category for women like me: “advanced maternal age.” At the doctor’s office, I received a yellow pamphlet with a list of instructions for women in my condition. Exercise, but not too much, else I could wind up with placental problems. Watch my sugar intake, or I might contract gestational diabetes, and give birth to a gigantic baby. Consume enough DHA in my prenatal vitamins, or my baby’s brain might not develop properly.

So at 16 weeks, I gave birth to a pregnancy tracker. I made a spreadsheet with every piece of data I could wrangle out of my doctor, along with all of the personal notes I’d been keeping on myself. I weighed in daily, ensuring that during my entire pregnancy I didn’t gain more than the recommended 26 pounds. I counted DHA milligrams in order to reach my daily target of 300. I bought a special thermos with a lid that clicked around to designate my progress drinking my required 10 daily cups of water. At the end of the day, that number got transferred to my computer.

And so it went for the remaining five months. I brought home copies of my medical records and tests, noting my blood pressure and sugar levels, sonograms and ultrasounds, along with the baby’s heartbeat, fetal positioning, and the like.

The logical part of me knew that all the healthy habits and precautions wouldn’t necessarily prevent autism or cystic fibrosis. But mapping all of my data to an area chart made me feel less anxious.

Though we exhaustively researched newborn development and first-time parenthood as much as we could, little could prepare us for what happened next. Our daughter lost a little weight in the day after her birth, which we were told is normal after a C-section. The following day, another test showed that she’d lost more than 10 percent of her birth weight. I was visited by three lactation consultants, each offering different advice on what to do to ensure she ate enough. Another nurse suggested I was holding my baby incorrectly, and that I should instead cradle her like a football. (As if I even knew what that meant.)

We were teetering on a dangerous situation, so our pediatrician asked us to supplement her feedings with formula and to start measuring exactly how much she was eating. Quantifying our baby’s feeding habits? That was the one instruction that finally made us both relax.

I built the first spreadsheet to track up to 10 daily feedings. Columns displayed the amount of formula and breast milk she consumed, along with the time of day, number and description of wet diapers, number and description of dirty diapers, and a special category I labeled “dessert.” Since our goal was to get our daughter’s weight up, we hoped that she’d be interested in just a bit more after each main course.

We loaded the spreadsheet to our home network so that both my husband and I could access it for real-time updating from any computer in our house. Because of the amount of weight our daughter had lost, I was told to use a breast pump and measure out my milk for her. (I was supposed to continue allowing her to nurse, but our primary objective was making sure she had adequate nourishment.) During the first feeding at home, I put my laptop on the nightstand beside my bed and filled out the chart as I tried to burp my daughter:

Time: 11:15 a.m.
Breast Milk: 75 milliliters
Formula Supplement: none
Wet Diaper: 1
Yellow Scale (1 = clear, 10 = call the hospital): 3
Dirty Diaper: 1
Poop Scale (1 = Dijon mustard, 5 = pâté, 10 = tar): 5
Dessert: 0

At 2 a.m. the next morning, I attempted the same routine. Laptop on left nightstand, baby attached to right boob. Either the harsh white light or my keyboard tapping, I’m not sure which, proved too distracting for the baby and my sleeping husband, so we opted instead for a giant binder with the spreadsheet in paper form. Later, we’d transfer the data back to our network.

As long as we were already tracking her intake and output, we thought it would be interesting to also track her sleep habits. We’d already decided to sleep train her, and we were curious about whether certain times of day correlated to more restful sleep. If we read to her during feeding, would that impact her sense of calm? Did the sound of the air conditioner make her tense and more awake? Were there other triggers, like the church bells across the street, or a mobile phone ringing? So we added another column.

Time: 6:30 p.m.
Breast Milk: 60 milliliters
Formula: 30 milliliters
Wet Diaper: 1
Yellow Scale (1 = clear, 10 = call the hospital): 3
Dirty Diaper: 2
Poop Scale (1 = Dijon mustard, 5 = pâté, 10 = tar): 3 and then another 3
Dessert: 10 milliliters
Sleep: 2:30 p.m.–6:30 p.m. 4 hours. We woke her up to feed; she was groggy the whole time.

After the second week, our daughter’s weight was exactly on target. Our pediatrician told us we could relax our rigid feeding schedule, and that we no longer needed to fill out the spreadsheets.

But why would we stop now? We’d already noticed a few patterns, and we had allowed the data to dictate our parenting style. Singing her the exact same song during her 6:30 p.m. feeding seemed to encourage longer, more restful sleep. Swaddling guaranteed 90 percent more quiet sleep than nonswaddling. She seemed to eat most around 11 a.m., 4:30 p.m., and 8 p.m., so we kept at the strict feeding schedule.

It occurred to us that while our baby daughter couldn’t communicate directly beyond crying, we could have a deeply intimate, beneficial conversation with her through data. We realized that we could quantify and study her in an attempt to optimize all of her development.

Se we launched a series of little experiments. We’d read studies showing a direct, positive correlation between future academic achievement and the number of words to which a new child is exposed, so we measured her attentiveness according to time of day and what we were reading. During feedings, we read aloud back-issues of The New Yorker and Popular Science as well as some of the board books we’d received as gifts. Was she more alert at 9 a.m. or before her afternoon nap? Did she prefer mostly photos and just a few words, or was she happier listening to us read through long passages? (To be sure, her excitement corresponded to ours, so stories about lunar robots and media mergers may have artificially piqued her interest.)

When she was 6 months old, we added a tab to the spreadsheet for new foods. Rice cereal, 2 teaspoons, on Oct. 3. Steamed, mashed carrots, 1 ounce, on Oct. 30; didn’t like at all. Steamed, mashed sweet potato, 1 ounce, on Nov. 10; liked even less. Steamed, mashed peas, 2 ounces, on Nov. 18; wanted more.

Next, we moved on to vocabulary. Dec. 10, “ga” and “mmm” sounds consistently. “Da-da” on Dec. 22. “Ah” means “mom” as of Dec. 30.

At 15 months, we knew the 37 complete words she’d mastered and the 11 miscellaneous vowel sounds that meant real-world objects. We were keenly aware that she loved call-and-response activities and that Taro Gomi’s book Everyone Poops made her laugh hysterically, so we created a few simple games to help her learn about her body parts and digestion.

By her 18-month pediatrician visit, she could point to her throat, ankle, eyebrow, teeth, shin, knee, and belly button when prompted, and we’d tracked it all in our series of spreadsheets, which we’d prepared for our appointment.

“Everything looks good,” the pediatrician said. We had a healthy, alert kid.

“If you were to assign us a number, say one to 10, to tell us how she’s doing, what would you give us?” my husband asked him.

“I don’t have any concerns, really …” the pediatrician answered.

“Right, but if you look at all of her data and where she is right now compared to where other kids are at the same age, what do you think?” I pressed, handing him our giant binder of spreadsheets again. “Is there a way we can optimize her development?”

“What about just a letter grade? Is she a C+ or a B?” my husband interjected.

“Listen. I’d give your daughter a solid A- right now,” he answered, finally. “And I’d give the two of you a C. You guys need to relax. Leave the spreadsheets at home next time.”

To you, our data tracking might seem obsessive, ostentatious, or just plain weird. Let me offer some perspective.

Our data tracking—and we’re still doing it, years later—is how we pay deep, sincere attention to our child. And I have tangible proof that it’s working.

Last week in my daughter’s ballet class, four mothers were sitting outside of a fairly transparent one-way mirror, iPhones outstretched with the record button on the entire time. I took a seat on the sofa and positioned myself so that I could occasionally glance up to see what the class was doing without distracting her.

One of the particularly chatty mothers told everyone that her daughter had “really taken to dancing,” and that since her husband is 6-foot-5 her daughter was definitely going to be tall and thin. “She’s going to be a professional ballerina,” she said, matter-of-factly. The other parents nodded in polite agreement. Then she turned to me.

“Your daughter is short with curly hair, right?”

There were four kids in class. Mine, hers, and two Asian girls.

“Yes,” I said flatly.

“Well she doesn’t look very happy,” she said. “I think there’s something wrong.”

About 10 minutes later, the door opened up and my daughter ran towards me with her usual wide grin. “The teacher gave us star stickers today!” she said. “I learned to jump like this,” she said, kicking her tiny feet perilously close to my right knee. “Did you see my special pose? I was an upside-down cowgirl.”

I looked over at the mother, whose future professional ballerina had been crying before class and was now whining about how much her ballet shoes pinched, and it was too hot in the room, and she didn’t like the music. “Do we have to come back here?” she said over and over.  

There are many differences between that chatty mother and me, but what sets us apart most in in how we pay attention to our children. The feedback she offers is one-directional. It’s reactive and superficial, and it doesn’t take into account what her child is most likely really thinking.

As a parent, I have years of data and pattern recognition. All of the data we’ve been collecting requires an intense amount of attention so that we can observe and record our daughter’s many nuances, opportunities, and challenges. We don’t hover, and we’re not YouTube parents, mobile phone at the constant ready. Instead, we’re quietly but consciously tracking what engages our daughter and how she responds in various situations.

I’d argue that our extremely intimate connection through the data we track helps us be better parents to our daughter. Watching her data in all forms, learning about what will empower her to achieve her very best and understanding what might be a trigger for frustration, and then giving her the tools to fully explore her interests is the basis for top educational philosophies, such as the Montessori method. It’s that meaningful attention that psychologists say children crave, and it’s what we know propels kids to new heights.

Our method just comes with spreadsheets.