When Santa Monica residents Sanaz and Delbert Whetter had their first child, Neta, seven years ago, the pair, who are deaf, quickly became frustrated with their options when it came to baby alert systems. Though the products they tried were connected to lamps within their toy-strewn home — the lights served as visual cues to check Neta — the couple found the devices were often faulty.
“We were also dismayed by the lack of development or improvements to products in this category,” Delbert Whetter tells L.A. Weekly, also mentioning that the same lackluster devices were on shelves when their second child, Adin, was born three years ago. “One device was supposed to distinguish between a baby’s cries and mere noises, and alert us with visual warnings, but it never worked right.
“So we opted, instead, to use a more sensitive alert system that is triggered by any kind of noise. With two young children in the house, that is a lot of alerts.”
Though innovations for reliable, attention-getting baby alert systems have been slow — seemingly nonexistent — a new app called ChatterBaby has recently changed the game. Through the app’s increasingly smart algorithms, the Whetters learn not only when their kids need to be checked on but also get details on what the specific issue might be.
“ChatterBaby translates auditory sounds to useful visual information, which is a phenomenal step forward in technology for deaf parents and other parents who rely on, or prefer, visual cues and similar means of communication,” Delbert Whetter says of the app, which works with existing baby monitors to set off lights. “It is very exciting for us as deaf parents to see that smart technology is finally being utilized in a space with so much potential.”
A mutual friend of the Whetters, UCLA professor Ariana Anderson, developed the new app. She tells L.A. Weekly that ChatterBaby can help hearing parents as well. “I was inspired to create this app after realizing that parents — both deaf and hearing — benefit from knowing how to respond to their crying baby,” the statistician says.
Though it can be downloaded on a smartphone in a minute, ChatterBaby wasn’t easy to create. Anderson and her team spent nearly three years collecting data, poring over notes to develop an algorithm that can differentiate whether a certain cry is linked to a child being hungry, in pain or simply fussy.
“[Parents] open the app, press record, and a five-second audio sample is sent to the server. After, an image is returned [on their phones that] displays a graph with the probability of each state,” says Anderson, whose curiosity over whether her own four children’s vocal patterns were “universal” spurred her to conduct the research that resulted in ChatterBaby.
“My laboratory at UCLA is focused on ‘Technology for Good.’ We wish to empower people to function independently in their daily lives, through algorithms and data,” she says.
On top of being a tool that can help parents figure out when and why their baby or toddler is crying, ChatterBaby also can help parents discover if their child is at risk of autism, Anderson says, by detecting abnormalities in the baby's cries.
“Once a parent uses ChatterBaby, we follow the child for six years and provide free screenings for autism in the privacy and comfort of their home beginning at age 2,” says the professor, who says the app is part of an ongoing UCLA project. “We hope that increasing autism screening will get children to doctors earlier, and reduce the income barrier that affects so many families in obtaining a diagnosis for autism.”
As more parents download ChatterBaby, their donated data is poised to strengthen the algorithm and serve kids better, Anderson says. It’s a continual honing that she believes will ensure future parents have the most advanced technology working for their families.
“I hope this app validates parents' own intuition about what their baby needs and gives them the confidence that they are an expert on their own baby,” says Anderson. “Becoming a parent is a stressful and overwhelming journey. We hope to strengthen, encourage and empower parents during the earliest and most difficult part of their journey.”