What to Expect From Pregnancy Apps
What to Expect From Pregnancy Apps

Expecting moms deserve better than a one-size-fits-all “Pregnancy Bible,” so why aren’t apps stepping up?

Lacey, a pregnant, 35-year-old woman in her 8th month, paces her living room floor. The phone in her hand is on speaker and “Mom” is listed as the contact on the other end.

LACEY: Mom! Oh, thank God, I am freaking out! I haven’t felt the baby move all day! And I can’t stop crying! And I think Anna is having second thoughts about this whole thing! And I haven’t slept in I don’t know how long, and I can’t eat anything, and I am worried that is hurting Ollie! And WHY WON’T HE KICK? He has been kicking all day every day until, like, like right now when I need him to! I’m going to be a terrible mother!!!

MOM: Your baby is as big as a spaghetti squash today!

LACEY: What? No. Mom! I need help, I do not know what to do! He won’t kick. He WON’T KICK!

MOM: Fiber-rich foods and witch hazel pads can help with hemorrhoids.

LACEY: I DON’T HAVE HEMORRHOIDS, I have personality flaws. Big ones. Anna sees the worst in me, I know it, and Ollie will, too! How can a fetus have bad karma? He must have bad karma or he wouldn’t belong to me-e-e-e-e! Lacey breaks down in sobs.

MOM: This is a good week to start discussing the hospital bag with dad!

LACEY: What? Mom. Anna is my partner, and she is not a man!

Anna walks in the door heaving a giant box containing a crib through the door.

ANNA: What’s going on? I heard my name?

MOM: Dad? Don’t even think about looking at that other woman when your partner is around. This week her emotions are running hot!

ANNA: What the – Lacey, get off your phone right now.


ANNA: Okay. Okay, honey. Calm down. Let’s get you some orange juice.

If you have ever been an expecting mom who used a pregnancy app, Lacey’s “mom” probably sounds familiar. Every line in the above, including the one for “dad,” comes directly from a current, leading pregnancy app: What to Expect, Baby Center and Who’s Your Daddy.

But the reality is, all of these apps appear to be modeled after the latest “Pregnancy Bible” – What to Expect When You’re Expecting – which has been The Word of Moms since 1984, when it first disrupted The Book of Spock. These books, and everything that came before, were written and crafted in times when there wasn’t much “talked about” information available to mothers regarding the most current pregnancy/birth/child-rearing wisdom.

But now the five different apps on Lacey’s phone can all compare her budding human to a fruit, vegetable or power tool, depending on which gendered object seems the most adorable for a generic Millennial audience. (Eggplant? No, no. We cater to Millennials. It’s a persimmon.)

Five different apps talk about hemorrhoids and their remedies, and 8,000 message boards and Facebook groups can, too.

Eighteen apps and a million message boards remind Lacey that she snores now, and her phone even dings with each new notification about it.

It’s safe to say that things that “weren’t talked about” when Lacey’s grandma was silently enduring massive heartburn and blissfully unaware of birth defects until delivery day are … out there. Even the grossest stuff. Which we don’t need to go into here.

So now that those basic needs for information are satisfied, Lacey can move on to other issues. Like how to handle the fact that every single aspect of her professional and personal life is being affected by this new life growing inside of her. Like how being a mom is something she wanted, but she isn’t sure if she is ready. Like how her childless friends might leave her behind and her partner might, too. And what if she forgets to buy dog food at the store and the baby is sleeping and she either has to wake the baby, leave the baby or starve the dog?

The truth is, the Laceys of today do not need a Book of Wisdom app. They need a mom app, or at least one that seems to care.



Why Should We Change What to Expect?

Beyond the unprecedented phenomenon of having nearly all recorded human knowledge at their fingertips, Millennial moms (and the earlier Gen Xers) have major cultural differences with previous generations of women, at least in the U.S. They work more, are more independent, are older, generally, when they choose to have kids, and they are more likely to have unconventional family dynamics like Lacey’s than previous generations.

According to an audience study by the ad agency Mower:

  • 57.4% of moms are back to work in 6 months compared to 13.7% in 1965.
  • 15% of children are born to women over the age of 35, up from 1% in 1970.
  • The average age of a new mom is 26 compared to 21.4 in 1970.
  • There were 2 million stay-at-home dads in 2012, double the amount in 1989.
  • 35% of LGBTQ adults are raising a child.

Moreover, as average maternal age rises, the prevalence of miscarriage, birth defects and post-partum depression does, too. The way we treat and discuss these issues, with everything being “out there” on the Internet, certainly has changed as well. Currently pregnancy apps are still woefully behind the times when it comes to the needs of moms having difficult pregnancies or miscarriages:

While What to Expect gave me the option of reporting “a loss” that didn’t require a lot of figuring out, when I went back into my user profile, where I was expecting to find a record of pregnancy that resulted in a miscarriage, I found nothing. Once again, my pregnancy had been erased, as if it never existed.

Considering about 20 percent of all known pregnancies end in miscarriage, and because these are apps geared toward women, you would think that some women would want to keep a record of their pregnancy, even if unsuccessful, to remember something important to them. I can imagine some women wishing for no reminders of a miscarriage. But some women might actually want those records.

Women enduring these difficult pregnancies or miscarriages are at their most vulnerable, and the last thing they need are notifications reminding them that their baby would have been the size of a pickle this week.

This is all to say that there is no “Millennial Mom” profile, and more than ever, the support that is needed is emotional, not scientific or even physical much of the time. These women are diverse in their situations and in their needs when they are expecting. What they should expect from a mobile app is community and wisdom that both sees them and meets those needs, not something that spews decades-old cutesy quips about “scaring” away baby’s hiccups with the startle reflex.

But Should We Really Throw BabyCenter out With the Bathwater?

What to Expect When You’re Expecting is still the longest-running New York Times bestseller. Millennials, as they start having babies, are still turning to this established brand and apps like BabyCenter that mirror some of What to Expect’s most recognizable features.

Because the features are excellent in many ways. If Lacey wants to learn baby’s developmental milestones, risks, issues for her next doctor’s appointment, the top baby names for pizza lovers or bearded writers, and products that might help her with her hemorrhoids, as long as Lacey can get past the bubbly tone and the fact that everything she reads there is a “ballpark figure” of reality, these apps are an excellent resource.

According to this article from AdWeek:

Dismissing What to Expect as a hanger-on from the pre-internet era would be unfair and misleading, because What to Expect has in fact moved on. Though some Americans still associate the brand name with those hefty paperbacks (the current edition is 656 pages), What to Expect has morphed into a diversified, multiplatform media brand that not only reaches 16 million people per month, it reaches 90 percent of them via mobile devices.

Even though women can get this information from other platforms, these apps do everything they can to compile it in a way that Lacey can navigate easily. That is where they continue to succeed; as far as one-stop shops go for the majority of basic information an expecting mom needs, this is it. That obnoxious bubbly tone is appealing: no one likes a downer. And all the glowing moms look so attractive. It’s inspiring.

But it’s like pumpkin spice lattes. Many people love them. The tradition, the sweetness, the olfactory memories of autumns yore, but at some point we’re all a tiny bit relieved when the season ends and we can have black coffee kinds of days again.



So How Can We Spock to Lacey’s Needs?

To use the pumpkin spice latte analogy again, Lacey (and her partner) don’t really need a ginger spice latte to knock pumpkin spice out of the top slot. They are not looking for the metal version of What to Expect to come in and tell Lacey that the baby is the size of a rabid dingo and compare fonts for baby name tattoos. What Lacey needs is a whole new approach, one that helps her find the support she needs from a community that fits her. Not another Book of Moms.

A few apps have started in this direction. Peanut, for example, operates like “Tinder for moms,” providing a platform for women to meet other like-minded moms in their areas. It also provides the ability to post topics and questions such as, “Am I terrible for not wanting to breastfeed?” and “I want to see your maternity pics for inspo!”

Another app that is onto something is Headspace. While not specifically marketed to pregnant moms, it is a meditation app that has a feature targeted directly to this audience in an attempt to alleviate emotional strain and stress while helping moms to find themselves in the sea of decisions and identity crises that come with motherhood.

But while these are good starts, they still fall short of supporting Lacey in all the ways that she needs. Brands looking to develop apps in that “one-stop-shop” way that What to Expect made so successful might consider the following strategies:

  • Customize experiences. It’s easier to make a milquetoast app with pumpkin spice advice for all, but Lacey won’t ride out the season once you start to annoy her. Allowing Lacey to opt into and out of certain pieces of information and styles of “tips” and providing her with something like an initial questionnaire to determine what kind of experience best meets her needs would make the app feel more personal. Even better if she can evolve her experience as she goes. If, say, her partner leaves her and she becomes a single mom. Or if she finds out the baby has Down Syndrome, adding these details to her profile might allow her to see information that would then be relevant to her at that point. Moreover, the notifications she gets might be more sensitive to her situation.
  • Focus on community. Technically What to Expect has message boards and communities, but they feel as polite and sanitized as the daily tips features. Parental decisions are some of the most important decisions Lacey will ever make, and naturally there is a lot of self-righteousness, judgy-ness and even hostility that makes many moms like her feel “unsafe” when they discuss or raise concerns about the many weighty decisions they must make as new parents. Allowing conversations like those on Peanut while providing a “safe space” with careful troll monitoring will help Lacey to connect to the social support she needs.
  • Consider wellness beyond medical terms. From the moment the second line or “yes” appears on the stick, pregnant women are poked and prodded and bombarded with likely more information about their physical health than ever before in their lives. Moreover, they find themselves no longer making decisions just for their own bodies but for another’s as well. They are told not to gain too much weight, not to drink, ski or eat sushi – a long list of rules and reminders that can be very overwhelming. Offering positive destressing strategies, such as self-care (meditation, regular pedicures or maternity massages), healthy recipes, insight on apps that will take a load off their plates (like Instacart for grocery delivery) and exercises to help them work through their emotions can all help Lacey genuinely feel good.
  • Keep ahead of the game. Pregnancy and parenting wisdom is notoriously a moving target: medical opinions change, safety precautions change, rites of passage change. Ten years ago Lacey would have been told to wait to feed her kids peanuts until their second birthday because the risk of a reaction before that age was too great. Now she would be told that waiting that long could actually make her kids allergic when they wouldn’t have been. Moreover, there is a new app and a new product or gadget every day made just for Lacey that could be the Answer to Her Needs. If you are the first to break that news to her every time, she will rely on you in a way few audiences would ever need to rely on brands.

Now that she has options and the ability to see “pregnancy wisdom” for what it is, Lacey is simply not going to care about an app that doesn’t care about her, at least not for the long game. Brands looking to keep Lacey on for the full nine months, and the next nine months, and maybe even a few more after that, should stop talking at her and take some time to listen.

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