This article will explore baby parenting apps and their effectiveness through the six following elements:
The first 1,000 days of a child’s life, from conception to age two, are an important period for child development. For example, although the human brain continues to develop and change throughout life, the first 1,000 days are a period of rapid brain development. However, during this time large differences across a range of child outcomes begin to emerge between children from lower socioeconomic backgrounds and their peers from more affluent backgrounds. One reason for these differences is that disadvantaged children are less likely to experience high-quality early home learning environments.
High-quality early home learning environments typically consist of early play and learning opportunities, including parents and caregivers engaging with their young children through play and verbal responsiveness. Research shows that in-person interventions that help parents and caregivers understand how to create stimulating and supportive early home learning environments can significantly benefit parenting knowledge and practice.
Digital interventions can have significant benefits for parents and caregivers in their child’s first 1,000 days.
These interventions can also support strong parent-child interactions, such as increasing parents’ sensitivity and responsiveness to their child’s interests and needs when playing and communicating with them. Interventions have also been shown to improve child development outcomes.
New digital technologies, in the form of parent-based applications (apps) used on smartphones or tablets, have recently emerged as a way to increase access to these supportive services for parents.
Parent-based apps are primarily designed to be used by parents or caregivers. They are intended to encourage offline interactions and learning opportunities with children. The number of parent-based apps available to download has grown significantly, from three apps released in 2010 to between 42-46 new apps per year between 2018 and 2020.
This is also a rapidly growing sector with venture capital investments currently worth nearly $1.4 billion.
However, very little research has evaluated the impact of these new digital technologies during children’s first 1,000 days. This research is needed to help parents and other stakeholders make informed decisions about whether this kind of support is suitable for their needs.
To address this gap, I evaluated a new parent-based app in a pilot randomized control trial with parents of children from birth to six months old in the United Kingdom. (The opportunity for this study arose from a previous collaboration with the app developer).
The app includes 1,026 daily age-appropriate activities for parents to choose from across eight areas of child development, such as language, socioemotional, sensory, and physical/ motor skills. Each of the activities explains to parents what to do and how to do it, using low-cost resources easily accessible in most homes.
In our study, we sought to understand whether the app could help boost parents’ self-efficacy during their child’s infancy. Parental self-efficacy encompasses parents’ beliefs or judgments about their ability to be successful in their role as caregiver. It helps guide their interactions with their young child and plays an important role in the parent-child relationship, as well as in child development outcomes and parents’ mental health. We focused on parents of children aged 0-6 months because of the emerging evidence on parental self-efficacy in the earliest months, as well as the availability of parental self-efficacy measures in this age range.
Research has shown that parent interventions aimed at increasing parents’ skills and knowledge also boost parents’ self-efficacy. In our study, we asked whether digital delivery of parent education, through the parent-based app activities, would also positively affect parent self-efficacy.
Parent-based apps could offer an accessible and affordable solution for boosting parents’ self-efficacy and improving the early home learning environment.
Seventy-nine parents of children from birth to six months took part in the study. On average, parents were 33 years old and children were three-and-a-half months. Parents were recruited from a convenience sample, and mostly consisted of White British mothers with a university-level education.
Half of the parents were randomly assigned to the treatment group and were asked to use the app with their child every day for four weeks. The other half were assigned to the active control group and were sent weekly e-mails that contained three activity ideas. The activities were selected from the ideas in the app, but the e-mails provided only brief descriptions of what to do for each activity. No additional details were provided, and activities were not tailored to the age or stage of development of the child as they were in the app.
Ninety percent of parents in the treatment group reported feeling “confident” or “very confident” on all the standardized questions about parental self-efficacy. This group’s self-efficacy ratings were also significantly higher than those of the active control group. Moreover, in the treatment group, those who used the parent-based app more times per week over the four-week period also reported greater self-efficacy.
This new evidence establishes proof of concept that digital interventions can have significant benefits for parents and caregivers in their child’s first 1,000 days. Given the widespread use of mobile phone technology by adults around the world, these parent-based apps could offer an accessible solution for boosting parents’ self-efficacy and improving the early home learning environment.
Researchers need to continue to build the evidence base for the effectiveness of parent-based apps. For example, studies can help establish the impact of these innovations on child development outcomes as well as with parents from different backgrounds.
Our results are limited to the specific parent-based app we evaluated. Additional research is needed to evaluate the quality and impact of other parent-based apps and to identify which specific content or features are most beneficial. Researchers should also examine how parent-based apps can be disseminated most effectively, such as through partnerships with early childhood education and care providers.
It is important to ask questions about the effectiveness of parent-based apps, including under what circumstances they are most suitable and for whom they work best.
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