In 2010, Gustavo Rodríguez was a mergers and acquisitions banker for Merrill Lynch, living in London, where he had moved from New York. Then, he became a father.
Like many new parents, Rodríguez said the day his son was born was both the happiest and the scariest. “I realized how poorly equipped I was to provide this child with all the things he was going to need, especially in the first few years of his life,” he says.
Being a data-driven type, he started collecting information. Three facts rocked his world: first, 85% of brain development happens in the first three years of life; second, caregivers profoundly influence the architecture of a baby’s brain by providing meaningful experiences; and third, each brain develops differently.
He went looking for a guide, something that would tell him what experiences he needed to provide to his child, and at what stages of development. All he could find was one-size-fits-all advice. So, he did what any enterprising financier who spots a gap in the market might do.
He built his own guide.
BabySparks, which has raised $2 million in venture capital to date, offers 1,300 45-second video-based activities to teach parents how to play with their child, targeted at four major domains of development (motor development, language, cognitive skills, and social/emotional skills), and tailored to every kid.
Instead of assessing young children with one-time, in-depth question sessions—the way most developmental assessments take place—BabySparks asks parents to rate each five-minute activity directly afterwards (easy, hard, or just right). The app then uses the micro-assessments to rate how the child is doing in each domain and designs activities accordingly. More than 3 million people have downloaded the app to date.
Rodríguez says the information BabySparks provides is meant to relieve some of the anxiety new parents feel. “Do you know what a playground is for a mom whose child is a little bit underdeveloped? It’s a torture chamber,” he explains. “When she goes with her friends, and all the babies that are around her little boy and around the same age, seven months, and they are starting to crawl and her’s is not—it’s pure torture. Even if she’s not showing it, she will start to feel that anxiety.”
Table of contents
The parenting industrial complex
Rodríguez is part of a wave of (mostly) US entrepreneurs focusing on a massive yet weirdly underdeveloped market: supporting new parents. Some, like BabySparks, try to marry neuroscience, which shows how important the first few years of a baby’s life are to their development, to the practical reality that most people don’t have a clue what to do during that all-important time. Others are tackling the stark imbalance between the rising demand for high-quality childcare and the staggering lack of supply. And some are bringing artificial intelligence and machine learning to babies’ sleep patterns, crying, and cognitive development.
Many of these companies seek to demystify the black box that is a new baby for a group—millennial parents—who, uncomfortable with uncertainty, seek tools to quantify themselves (miles walked, sleep logged, mindful minutes tallied) and, by extension, their kids (words spoken, number of cries, pattern of tantrums). To the oft-repeated, highly unhelpful phrase directed at new parents—”trust your instincts”—many opt to trust data instead.
Technology has set itself some ambitious goals: connect the world, democratize finance, hasten the delivery of anything, personalize everything. Parenting is a natural next frontier: if Elon Musk can send a rocket to space, surely someone can find an effective way to get babies to stop crying? (Or better yet, fall asleep.) The timing is good, since most parents are armed with a supercomputer in their pocket, there’s slightly more gender diversity among investors and entrepreneurs, and parents and policymakers are increasingly focused on those crucial first 1,000 days of a child’s life. Money and attention is starting to trickle into the space.
Investors point to the convergence of three things: scientific advancements in the field of early childhood development; policymakers buying in at scale to the notion that early childhood offers the highest return on investment among social spending; and technology that can do what no baby book ever could—personalize and deliver, on demand, the targeted information that parents need. (“Hey Siri, how do I get my kid to not pee on me when I change his diaper?”)
The big question is whether these companies will actually deliver support to new parents or, as often happens, just stress them out more. Taking care of infants, it turns out, is a very human endeavor, rife with uncertainty. Babies may be natural born learners, but they are also social learners: they need their parents, not an app, to lead the way when it comes to satisfying the scientifically-proven need for infants to have constant, responsive, supportive caregiving.
History suggests that more information for parents doesn’t always provide more comfort—or much benefit to society. Over the past 50 years, a focus on narrowing school-readiness gaps between advantaged and disadvantaged kids was hijacked by the wealthy and used to widen gaps rather than close them. “People morphed the message of, ‘Make sure there’s academic enrichment in preschools, especially for kids who don’t have as much,’ into, ‘Oh my God, everybody ought to get a lot of academic enrichment quickly because the brain is going to stop growing at three,’” says Kathy Hirsh-Pasek, a professor of psychology at Temple University, where she is head of its Infant Language Laboratory. (For the record, the brain does not stop growing at three.)
What often starts as an effort to optimize for love and happiness often slips into something much more complicated: a desire by parents to make sure their children have every possible advantage, from Mandarin and music to coding and early algebra. Since most parents, out of love (and panic), will never stop trying to improve or prepare for things related to their kids, the line between unconditional support and endless optimization quickly blurs.
“We are not yet at the apex of panic,” says Hirsh-Pasek. “We have a ways to go. Right now parents are so scared that they won’t do the right thing for their child.”
Technology, per usual, wants to help. Can it?
The target market
Stereotyping entire generations is generally unhelpful, but if the millennials have earned one generalization it is for being the “Me” generation (or even the “Me Me Me” generation, as one writer put it). Their intense self-focus now appears to be shifting to their offspring. In the US, nearly 90% of all new parents are millennial, 60% of them say having children is central to their identity, and they rate the goal of being a good parent 22 points higher than having a successful marriage (reflecting the relative importance of parenting, the unimportance of marriage, or both).
In addition to being hell-bent on being good parents, millennials are also drawing on more diverse sources of advice. A recent nationally representative study of 1,002 parents and caregivers of children aged five and under found that 49% of parents used mobile parenting apps, and 60% consulted science-based parenting websites. New parents these days tend to live far from their older relatives, who know plenty about parenting from experience. Unlike their parents and grandparents, today’s new parents want to know precisely what developmental milestones exist, and whether their child is meeting them (the New York Times has them all listed here, in great detail).
This presents a massive, global opportunity. According to Rodríguez of BabySparks, there are 400 million families with children aged 0-3; about half of them have a smartphone. It’s no wonder, then, that technologists see an opening. Until very recently, though, the mostly-male world of venture capital hasn’t been too fussed about uncovering new ways to help new mothers, or their babies, sleep. But as the importance of early childhood development becomes clear, and more key players in Silicon Valley get old enough to face the very real problems of rearing their own children, innovations are emerging.
(Many wealthy countries outside of the US offer support for new families, from paid parental leave to home maternity nurses. As a result of these strong social policies, innovation is not as robust elsewhere as in the US, where new parents are pretty much on their own.)
Matthew Glickman, who sold Baby Center to eToys in 1999 for $250 million, last year started Promise Venture Studio to attract early childhood entrepreneurs, shepherd them through fellowships and programs, and create connections between science, tech, capital, and policy. He likens the early childhood space to education technology (known as “ed tech” among those in the know) 18 years ago, when there wasn’t much going on beyond Silicon Valley. “We are in the green shoot stage,” he says. “It’s hard to know if they develop into big oak trees or smaller flowers.”
Two-thirds of kids under five live in homes where both parents work—compared with fewer than one in 10 in 1940—and about one in five children live with a single mother. An increasingly automated, gig-based economy acts as a constant reminder that education and skills are what separate humans and robots, fueling a relentless call to arms to always-be-bettering (as Dr. Seuss might say). Yet there is little infrastructure to meet that demand, to support parents for the first three years before preschool might start. During this time, the care is hardest, but a lack of parental leave for many workers means few can stay home with their newborns beyond a few weeks, or months.
According to the Omidyar Network’s Big Ideas, Little Learners report, the average US family spends 18% of its income on daycare, compared with 7% in other developed countries. Even so, quality is uneven: only 10% of childcare providers in the US are deemed “high-quality,” and half of Americans live in areas with an undersupply of licensed care options.
Quality preschool matters, especially for disadvantaged families. Three-quarters of kids who attended preschool achieved higher IQ scores than those who did not, and a similar share who went to preschool had higher academic achievement than those who didn’t. Disadvantaged kids who attend high-quality preschool programs show other major long-term benefits, from more years of education, higher salaries and better health to lower levels of incarceration and longer lives. That’s why childcare is one of the biggest areas investors see as ripe for disruption. Wonderschool, a platform that helps licensed educators and caretakers launch in-home preschools or daycares, raised $20 million in financing, led by venture capital firm Andreessen Horowitz.
The most fragmented market in the world?
While “parenting” is a fairly new concept, in the context of evolution—parents used to have kids to help with work (the more the better), not to go to Stanford—parents seem to have taken to it like a newborn to a breast. Which begs the question: why is the market for technology tailored for new parents so small?
“There’s a huge opportunity to be a companion, because parenting is really hard,” says Björn Jeffrey, a strategic advisor and former CEO of Toca Boca, a creator of popular apps and games for young children. “I don’t know why it’s so unaddressed.”
One reason is that the home is deemed sacred, “parenting” is code for “mothering”, and care work is considered of little value. “Part of this is about gender and as a society, our failure to appropriately value what is traditionally considered women’s work,” says Jen Lexmond, founder of Easy Peasy, a UK startup that has partnered with the UK government (and more recently Lego) to provide caregivers, via technology, learning games to help develop various skills and improve parent-child relationships.
Many parents still don’t realize how influential they are in the first few years at shaping the foundations of their kids’ future success—in developing attention, managing emotions, and helping shepherd executive function (the planning part of the brain). They think learning is academic and takes place in school, without realizing that those attentional and emotional foundations underpin all learning later in life. “There’s a perception societally that people start to learn when they go to school,” says Isabelle Hau, a partner at Omidyar Network, whose work in education includes an early childhood focus. “The science has shown something very different and that has started to penetrate the mainstream parent population.”
And there’s an institutional challenge: supporting parents means going into people’s homes. This is a far cry from supporting kids when they are in school, an institution the government controls. Homes in the US, in particular, are considered private, personal, and absolutely none of the government’s business.
“The issue is that it’s been seen as a personal family responsibility, not a collective responsibility,” says Joan Lombardi, former deputy assistant secretary for early childhood development at the US Department of Health and Human Services.
But many say the market is now reaching a tipping point. “I really feel the tide shifting,” says Lexmond of Easy Peasy. The G20 put it on its agenda. Every major Democratic candidate running for US president has a plan to support families. Public funding for early childhood purposes in the US has increased by 62% in the past five years; in the past two years alone it rose 16%, while higher-ed investments fell and K-12 were flat. Nearly half of state governors in the country have committed to some form of significant early childhood reforms.
Promise Venture Studio (along with Sesame Workshop and Omidyar Network) organized a demo day, called Early Futures, at eBay for early childhood entrepreneurs in November, with more than 50 companies making pitches. At ASU GSV, an annual summit about education technology, Promise Venture Studio hosted a pop-up booth and it drew such unexpectedly large crowds that fire marshals had to manage the line to see it.
“What I am seeing—maybe it’s my hope—is this acknowledgement that families in the 21st century need support,” says Lombardi. “They often do not have extended family, they are migrating to cities for employment, there are a lot of changes, and they need a community support system that includes an array of services. There’s a growing awareness of this reality.”
How we got parents to panic
In the 1980s, a slew of brain research unveiled a radical new idea: babies were not blobs who transformed into learning machines at five, but tiny geniuses, literally primed for learning. Brains develop 85% of their mass by age three, with 1 million new neural networks forming every second. Experiences with loving adults and stimulation in the form of reading together, speaking, and singing in “motherese” (that high-pitched coo that is slower, higher, and literally alerts babies that you are communicating with them) turned out to be critical in laying the foundations of everything from how to love to how to do math.
By the 1990s, brain science was going mainstream. A 1996 Newsweek cover story explained “Your Child’s Brain”; in 1997, the Clintons hosted a conference called, “The White House Conference on Early Childhood Development and Learning: What New Research on the Brain Tells Us About Our Youngest Children.”
Research was emerging to show that gaps in learning started way earlier than people realized. In a landmark study first published in 1995 (pdf), researchers Betty Hart and Todd Risley discovered that by the age of three, very wealthy children hear 30 million more words than their very poor counterparts (this study has been updated and debated). Other studies found that many kids did not have access to appropriate-age books. As a result, they were way behind (pdf) their better-off counterparts when school started.
The antidote to this was a push for academic enrichment for disadvantaged kids, in a bid to close the gaps before school started. “You can’t start them in formal school and have reading unfold in the way it should if you have never been exposed to a book,” explains Hirsh-Pasek of Temple University. “If you don’t play with blocks and count, you don’t have the knowledge that undergirds math.” The plea was to policymakers to invest in supporting families with high-quality preschool and well-funded family interventions for low-income families who face multiple forms of adversity.
But then, two things happened. As more kids started to attend preschool, the conversation shifted from “school readiness” to what to do with children still at home, at ages 0-3. Why start enriching at three when you can start in the womb? And in what would become a pattern, middle- and upper-class parents received the message, amplified it, and capitalized on it: between 1970 and 1980, the top 10% of families by income in the US spent 2.5 times more on education than the bottom 10%. From 2010 to 2015, that figure increased to 4.4 times. Perhaps they absorbed the actual science and cuddled up to read with their babies more, but they also splurged on classes, Gymboree, and baby flashcards.
The market to optimize infants exploded. Julia Aigner-Clark, a stay-at-home mom in Colorado built a company in her basement with sock puppets and a classical music soundtrack. Baby Einstein, followed by Baby Mozart, Baby Galileo, Baby Van Gogh, and Baby Shakespeare, was born. Marketed as a way to expose infants to high art (thereby making them smarter) the company took the US by storm. According to a study cited by the New York Times, in 2002 one-third of all American babies between six months and two years has at least one video (full disclosure: I had the whole set). In 2001, Disney bought Baby Einstein for a reported $25 million.
The Your Baby Can Read! franchise made over $185 million in gross sales by promising exactly that: a $200 set of DVDs and books that said it could get your three-year-old consuming Harry Potter. And who can forget the Pregaphone, which supposedly allowed mothers to communicate with their babies, as if evolution might have missed that trick.
Hirsh-Pasek says a certain mentality took hold: if one aspirin cured a headache, why not take 20 and make sure you never, ever got a headache? More gadgets and gizmos hit the market, none of which had been properly tested. “There was an overreaction” to the science, says Michael Levine, founder of the Joan Ganz Cooney Center at Sesame Workshop, a nonprofit that researches educational technologies for underserved children.
At the same time, the internet was starting to take hold and information spread more widely about parenting practices around the world (see Amy Chua and the rise of the Tiger mom). The US learned that its supposed exceptionalism was in fact self-delusional: it was not an education superpower (except for the very rich), and compared with countries like Canada, China, and Finland, it was a laggard. Parents, aware that their children were increasingly competing against kids around the world, and not just in their neighborhood, looked to prepare them better for a bigger, tougher world.
And what better time to start than from birth, when the possibilities seem limitless?
The thing was, studies began to show that playing Mozart as a soundtrack to puppet shows, while providing a means for pre-iPad parents to take a shower, did not improve one- and two-year-olds’ language development. An advocacy group complained to the FTC about Baby Einstein’s claims that it improved cognition; it then threatened a class action lawsuit. On the back of research showing no gains (and perhaps some deficits), Disney dropped “educational” from the marketing and offered refunds of up to $16 for four DVDs per household.
Your Baby Can Read! faced a similar fate. The FTC filed a complaint in 2012, stating that, in fact, your infant could not learn to read. It prohibited the company from making claims that it could teach teach children as young as three or four to read Charlotte’s Web. One of the company’s products is now called Your Baby Can Learn!
But just as things started to recalibrate, and the reality that reading together, singing, and going to museums might be enough, the internet became ubiquitous. App stores packed their virtual shelves with “educational” offerings. Levine from the Sesame Workshop and Lisa Guernsey from New America spent years studying them to evaluate if their content was in fact educational. “Most apps fail miserably,” Levine says, concluding that the most popular and successful literacy and language apps have virtually no input from literacy experts, limited input from child development experts, and are rarely tested to see if their educational claims are valid. Few had a sequenced curriculum, or ideas that build on one another and actually help kids learn.
“We pivoted from toys and games to new apps that claim to be educational, and that were not,” he says. “That was the new holy grail.” Parents, eager to find ways to harness screens to support and enrich their kids, rather than, say, leaving them to drown in YouTube videos, were ill-equipped to judge what was on offer.
“You have a market that’s free to make claims, and the sophistication of the buyer—the parent—is quite low,” says Jeffrey, the co-founder of Toca Boca. “It doesn’t solve for actual education taking place, but it solves for parental anxiety about their kids being on iPads instead of reading Proust.”
Screen-time debates have exploded and the panic about what parents should do with young kids is as intense as ever. In 2015, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommended that kids under two really shouldn’t use screens at all (pdf), and after that only small doses together with a parent.
As those debates rage, another market has emerged: rather than build tools to make babies smarter, why not build tools to make parents smarter about how to interact with them?
Information and inequality
The parenting arms race among the elites is operating at full tilt. Take, for example, the “Varsity Blues” college admissions scandal, in which a handful of celebrity and uber-rich parents paid hundreds of thousands of dollars to illegally finagle their kids’ way into elite colleges. And yet, what is also abundantly clear is that kids from wealthy families, on average, do better in life than their less well-off peers, regardless of whether their parents bribe their way into college or not.
In the US, while poverty rates have improved, the pattern by which family income dictates children’s outcomes—from graduation rates to employment, health, and happiness—has deteriorated. Poor children get sicker than their wealthier counterparts, and struggle in school more. Racism and social class play a role, but many in the early childhood field see infancy as the time to break the cycle that means a mother’s education and zip code largely determine her children’s outcomes.
While there has been a major push to fund universal pre-kindergarten, including in states like Florida and cities like New York City, many argue age four is still way too late to invest to change the grim reality that rich kids, on average, outperform poorer ones. “There’s not a shred of evidence to support universality,” said James Heckman, an economist who won the Nobel prize in 2000 for his work in econometrics and has spent his time since making the case for investing in early childhood. “Not one shred. Nothing. Zero. And yet, people are pushing it.” The key, Heckman argues, is targeting those who need it most and doing it well, rather than offering it to everyone.
There’s good evidence to suggest that starting earlier can make a difference. Beginning in the 1970s in North Carolina, researchers developed the Abecedarian approach, a program that emphasized positive interactions—what scientists now call “serve and return“—in a curriculum that uses a lot of language (since poor children hear significantly fewer words than rich ones), delivered by well-trained and supported adults, and with a focus on health and safety for kids. It has now been used in various countries and settings, and three longitudinal studies recently evaluated show results that are kind of mind-blowing.
One study measured 111 kids, many over the course of 45 years. At every step along the way, kids subject to the Abecedarian approach fared better than the control group. They scored better throughout school in reading and math at ages eight, 12, 15, and 21, repeated far fewer grades, and were far less likely to be placed in special education (12% enrollment in special-ed classes, compared with 48% in the control group). In one finding that shocked the researchers, 29% of the mothers in the control group died before their children were 40, compared with 10% of mothers whose children received the educational treatment, suggesting a potential connection between having high-quality parenting support and health.
Joseph Sparling, a senior scientist emeritus at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill who helped build the original program, says the results show that we can approach the first five years of life—when the brain is the most flexible, adaptable, and capable—much more effectively. Young children “are ready to learn different and complex things—an entire language, how to solve problems,” he says. “We don’t necessarily use that time as wisely as we can.”
Who’s doing what
Here’s a snapshot of noteworthy companies doing business in the field of early childhood development:
The high end
Returning to work after having a child can be jarring. You’ve brought a helpless human into the world, you feel tremendous love and protectiveness toward this tiny, fast-changing creature, and suddenly it’s time to abandon her for eight hours. Every day.
Exacerbating this situation is the fact that many families leave their child in sterile settings with people they do not know, who cannot possibly love their child as they do, for most of their child’s waking hours. In New York City, the average early childhood worker’s salary is $23,000, about half of what kindergarten teachers make. Although brain science tells us that age 0-3 is crucial, the market responds with janitor-level pay for people entrusted to care for kids that age.
The day at Vivvi, which opened in July, starts at 7am, ends at 7pm, and runs 250 days of the year; no extra fees or fines. Starting salaries for associate teachers are around $45,000; the high end will be paid $70,000, and all will be offered equity. The space is open, light, and filled with soft furniture to conjure up a home, not a childcare center. There are private nursing rooms, parent education classes, and a Slack channel so parents can set up playdates in one place.
The goal, founders say, is a place that cares for kids, but also creates a community for parents to learn to be parents. “All the issue and anxieties sneaking into your head—you have a place to bring it,” says co-founder Charles Bonello, who was a venture partner at RTP Ventures and co-founder of Grand Central Tech, a work share space in New York City.
There’s an “inquiry-based” approach to pedagogy, or how the teachers approach the child’s learning. The group arrived at this approach after studying Montessori, Reggio Emilia, Waldorf and others and using the best from each (a Montessori focus on the individual; a home feel per Waldorf, natural resources à la Reggio). While still expensive to parents—the price depends on what the employer pays, but it can range from free to $2,000 per month—the founders say the key to the economics of the business is a federal employer subsidy, which cuts costs by more than a third (The 2020 New York state budget created an employer-provided childcare credit that is the same as the federal one, effectively doubling the subsidy).
For everyone else
“I used to say the childcare system in the US was broken but then I realized that was giving us too much credit,” says Jessica Sager, co-founder and CEO of All Our Kin, a non-profit operating in Connecticut and the Bronx that aims to improve home-based care by increasing the supply of high-quality early educators while providing high-quality care. “We don’t have a childcare system at all. It doesn’t work for parents, children, or caregivers,” she said at a pitch event for Early Futures.
Sager says because there is no decent supply of care for kids, parents rely on women to take children into their home. The assumption is that it’s low quality, which can becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy because the care providers earn so little, and get no training or professional development. Founded in the late 1990s, All Our Kin offers licensing support, coaching and training to the improve the quality of care, and business training to make sure care providers earn more. In turn, they offer care focused on child development. “We are elevating the profession. This is not babysitting,” said Alison Wunder Stahl, New Haven director of All Our Kin in a recent radio interview. “We are helping to support folks who want to become educators.”
The early results are promising. In Connecticut, over the past 10 years the supply has risen 74% in the areas where All Our Kin works; for the rest of the state, it has fallen 34%. Children in the programs score 50% higher on tests of literacy, language, and social and emotional development while care providers score higher on quality assessments, too. It says it is being piloted in New York City and aims to roll out in all 50 states.
There’s also Andreessen Horowitz-backed Wonderschool, a sort of Airbnb for daycare that helps launch in-home preschools and daycares. It enables professional caregivers and teachers to set up shop at home, with Wonderschool handling the administration and logistics (in exchange for a 10% cut of tuition). The platform addresses the fact that not only is there massive unmet demand for childcare, but the nature of the care that parents need is also changing, since fewer jobs run on a predictable 9-5 schedule these days.
2. Advice and support for parents
In 2016, Jessica Rolph was no stranger to startups—or babies. A founding partner at Happy Baby, an organic baby food company, she thought a lot about what to feed infants (the company was acquired by Danone in 2013 for “hundreds of millions,” according to news reports). At that point, she had three kids and moved from what to feed them to how to support their development. She tinkered with building toys because she wasn’t happy with what she found. When she stumbled on a PhD dissertation by William Staso (“Neural Foundations: What Stimulation Your Baby Needs To Become Smart”) that linked the science of what is optimal for development into actionable daily experiences, she decided to build a company around it.
Teaming up with Rod Morris, her best friend’s husband, the two built Lovevery, a stage-based early learning company that delivers packages of simple, well-crafted, expensive toys to parents by subscription, with guides tailored to a child’s age and what they are ready to learn. (The guides gently remind parents that instead of comparing your baby to your friend’s baby vis-a-vis various milestones, you should focus on what scientific research says your child is eager to learn at each developmental stage). It’s $480 in the first year for six boxes, and the same amount in the second year for four boxes. The goal is to show parents things to do with their babies that encourage interaction and build connections between caregivers and children. The company has raised $12 million from partners including Reach Capital and Sesame Workshop.
I received the 11- and 12-month-old kit, which included a book on opposites, a “wallet” with credit cards and a zipper, and a box with a light ball, a heavy ball, and sliding door. The kit comes with a play guide, with simple instructions about what to do with the toys and what skills it helps to develop.
Receiving the package, I recalled how my own kids, now eight and 10 years old, loved each of these these things: we had at least five opposites books; I distinctly recall them yanking credit cards from our wallets, and they spent days playing “put it in the box.” While I knew nothing about child development—I was a finance reporter at the time—these things became apparent without an app or a $480 series of packages. (Would I have figured it out sooner with this, or is figuring it out part of what taught me to be a parent?) Regardless, the goal—to build parent’s confidence, and increase meaningful interactions with their kids via simple activities and guides—is a good one.
Unlocking social mobility
Jen Lexmond worked for eight years on trying to understand how to improve social mobility in the UK, first for a think tank and then for an all-party parliamentary group. She emerged believing the key to social mobility is supporting children and parents as early as possible. She created Easy Peasy, a platform with evidence-backed activities for families to discover and play learning games. From the start, she teamed up with the government to offer it in low-resource nursery schools. This was intentional: had she sought venture capital, investors would have demanded growth and the target market would be affluent parents with deep pockets.
“I never saw myself as a tech entrepreneur,” she says, sitting in a cafe in east London. “I saw myself as solving a social problem.” Before designing the program, she spent a year following a group of families with new babies, observing what they needed. “We learned they are totally overwhelmed by information that makes them feel anxious and not good enough,” she says. They wanted ideas, translated quickly, and easily. “It’s about being where parents are and offering them ideas at the right time in the right way at the right dose to help nudge them into more positive and more playful interactions,” she says.
After she created her programs, she had Oxford researchers test the efficacy of it, in two randomized control trials, both in low-income settings. The results showed that using the platform improved parents’ confidence in setting and sticking to boundaries, as well as helping kids improve cognitive self-regulation—concentration, paying attention, sticking with a challenge—thereby narrowing the school-readiness gap between rich and poor.
Last month, the UK government announced a three-year “Hungry Little Mind” campaign to give 500 parents access to video tips, including advice and suggested games via Easy Peasy. The goal is to get it to 10,000 families before the end of the year.
3. Assessment, AI, and machine learning
Jessica Toh likes to study. She triple-majored in math, statistics, and electrical engineering/computer science at Berkeley and then got an MBA from Cambridge. When she had her first kid in 2010, naturally, she read up on what lay ahead.
“I thought I was super prepared,” she recalls (parents know where this is going). “I thought my kid would sleep well because I slept well, and would eat well and would be a blank slate and super smart.”
Things didn’t go to plan. He woke up every two to three hours for 20 months. She found her speech starting to slur and her thoughts inaccessible, trapped in the back of her head, unable to come out. The pediatrician suggested sleep training, but he cried for seven hours. The nurse practitioner told her to to stick with it for four weeks. She read books and articles online which were generic and unhelpful. She panicked. “I was like, ‘my kid is going to be so dumb because he’s not sleeping,'” she says. She channeled her experience into trying to solve sleep problems, first via tracking sleep with data measurement and then evolving this into step-by-step guidance on how to improve sleep.
Enter Huckleberry, which uses AI and a team of pediatric sleep experts to devise individualized sleep plans for a fraction of the cost of sleep consultants. There’s a free product, Sweet Spot, that has a parent log a kid’s sleep and then predicts when he/she will be tired again. A subscription product ($15 a month) features an adaptive diagnostic test (meaning that it changes its questions based on your answers) and results in a personalized sleep plan using pediatric sleep experts and AI.
Huckleberry has raised seed funding from Spero Ventures (one of Pierre Omidyar’s funds) and Tamarisc Ventures. Some 150,000 people have used the product. Next up after sleep: tantrums. Toh will work with applied behavioral analysts to devise plans to help survive the terrible twos (and threes, or however high it goes).
Ariana Anderson, a mother of four and a professor and a statistician at UCLA, is applying AI to babies’ cries to tell parents whether their baby is in distress from pain or hunger. “We want to do for babies cries what Shazam did for music,” she told the Early Futures conference in 2018. Eventually, she wants ChatterBaby to be an early screening device for autism. When they realized that a baby with autism might exhibit different crying patterns, they sought more data to confirm it. It’s being translated into seven languages, and the hope is that more data means it makes more accurate predictions.
Cognitive ToyBox offers gamified early childhood assessments to help unburden teachers from administrative overload. Tammy Kwan, co-founder and CEO, says that process is “onerous” and people don’t trust the data because it’s subjective. She teamed up with some early Head Start centers and is adapting the assessment with direct input from educators and administrators to make detection and screening faster and easier.
Technology is unlikely to solve the anxiety of being a new parent, which comes from the uncertainty of doing something completely new and incredibly consequential. Tech tools will continue to evolve as a means for parents to access more personalized, on-demand advice, which can offer reassurance. Helping babies sleep, detecting autism, and reducing the administrative workload of Head Start workers might seem niche to some; to those whose children are not sleeping, at risk for autism, or spending every day in an overcrowded classroom, technology could offer a lifeline. There’s never been a better time to disrupt childcare or help professionalize the early childhood workforce.
But stumbling through those early years along with others—that is, building a village—is a feature, not a bug, of parenting. “Technology should be seen as a tool, not as a replacement,” says Jessie Rasmussen, president of Warren Buffett’s Early Childhood Fund. Like all things related to tech that purports to augment human endeavors, questions arise about how to protect a baby’s data, how to prevent an app from interrupting crucial interpersonal interactions, and much else besides. Ultimately, the most revolutionary innovation will be whatever helps parents feel confident and joyful in what turns out to be a fleeting experience. Perhaps, the product most needed is one that gets them more comfortable with the reality that uncertainty is part of the package and, ultimately, a source of joy.
“Uncertainty is the magic of development,” says Jack Shonkoff, founder of the Center for the Developing Child at Harvard. “It’s the essence of life.” Certainty, he says, is impossible to achieve in early childhood development. Nor should we seek it. Imagine a world in which you know exactly who your child will become, he says: “Who wants to live in that world?”