London: When app developer Rob Tong’s son Freddie was born, he’d proudly tell his friends what a great sleeper his baby was.
But many babies are during the newborn phase — they sleep most of the time anyway and are usually in the same room as their parents, comforted by their murmurs in the background.
Then Freddie hit the 12-month mark, moved into his own room, and decided he wasn’t going to shut his eyes without a lot of coaxing. Tong had to get used to existing on a lot less little sleep. And the only thing that seemed to soothe his fretful son was the sound of his “rubbish” singing: “So I started recording my warblings on a Dictaphone, laying it down by the cot and then creeping out of the room.”
But being an app developer, it wasn’t long before Tong realised he could create something himself that would work a lot more effectively. Driven to distraction by lack of sleep, Tong came up with a sound-activated mobile app to help parents settle their children when they wake in the night. And so the SleepHero app was born.
Apart from a few white noise apps, nothing like SleepHero had been created before. White noise often works because it sounds similar to the sound of life in the womb: a constant noise that blocks out sudden, sharper sounds. It’s even said to reduce stress in babies. SleepHero has a few on offer for free, and more that you have to pay for.
Choose from the gentle hum of “Aircraft Cabin” or the soothing “Cafe Chatter”, but skip the Hitchcockian “Birdsong” and avoid “Campfire” unless you want to keep leaping up to grab the extinguisher.
But it’s the next option for the caffeine-dependent parent that is so innovative: SleepHero allows parents to record their own voices into their phone — and the recording of talking, singing, or even just shushing is then automatically activated when the child begins to stir and make a noise. Rob found that his friends all had different ways of settling their children.
“Some babies had songs they liked, some had repeated words, some enjoyed their grandparents telling them a story. It made sense to me to have a function that would allow you to record exactly what you wanted. I’ve even included the words to a selection of nursery rhymes on the app because sleep deprivation made me forget most of them. Then the autopilot feature effectively takes the night shift, detecting when your child is awake and playing the audio at a volume you decide.”
Rob also realised that once a baby could grab a phone, you wouldn’t want it within reach. “So the app has a sensitivity setting — the highest level is so sensitive you could leave it in a doorway. It also allows parents to set how much noise their child has to be making before it starts to play and how long their child needs before the audio ceases to loop.” When Freddie was joined by his baby sister Gracie, Rob realised he had a brand new set of sleep challenges to deal with. Freddie was now a toddler and his “big boy bed” was an exciting milestone — but it also meant he was getting wise and could no longer be convinced that the voice in the room was Rob himself.
“He knew it was the phone, not me, so I tried to think of a way I could make the app work for older children. We were potty training him at the time and he seemed to respond really well to the sticker chart we used for that, so I decided to build a version into the app. It’s a simple as getting a star for staying in bed and not coming through too early. The first time Freddie got seven stars we asked him what he’d like as a reward, and he said a flamingo. He actually meant a real one but thankfully we were able to fob him off with a soft toy.”
Rob has spent a year designing and testing the app, which is now available on the App Store for iPhone, iPod and iPad. Like most things involving babies and children, it’s not fail-safe — but combined with strong coffee, it should help.