Chelsea Paulson used to feel guilty about not keeping up with her first daughter’s baby book. So when her eldest was a toddler, she signed up for a subscription service that gives her a gentle nudge by asking simple questions on her phone.
Now the mom of three, Paulson fires off quick replies — describing how she and her husband decided on their daughter’s name, the ways her youngest shows independence or what makes her middle child upset these days.
“It’ll remind me and send me messages,” said Paulson, a teacher in Waterville, Minnesota. “I can click on it and respond to the questions that way. Sometimes I’ll do it while I’m in the bathroom — without the kids there. I’ll close the door, (and be) on my phone.”
Being reminded to capture everyday memories and milestones via the Qeepsake service gives Paulson considerable “peace of mind.” It also helps combat the dreaded baby-book guilt — the irksome feeling of failure that occupies more space than it ought to in the minds of many parents (OK, mostly moms).
Baby books, long a tradition in this country, are typically bought or given before a baby arrives. Often, they end up stuffed in a drawer, their pages blank, while photos of first steps, teeth and haircuts get stored in the cloud somewhere.
In recent years, however, a growing number of parents have been devising ways to use technology to fill those abandoned books. Some forgo print altogether, keeping running logs in their phone’s notes app, or maintaining Twitter accounts dedicated to the funny things their children say.
Some entrepreneurial parents are betting moms and dads will pay for help to rid themselves of baby-book guilt. That’s the message behind startups like Qeepsake and the Short Years Baby Book App, which promises your phone will do nearly all the work to create a fabric- covered memory book.
The truth is, parents have struggled to keep up ever since baby books’ very beginnings in the late 19th century, said historian Janet Golden, who has pored through thousands of baby books in the collection at UCLA’s Louise M. Darling Biomedical Library for her work on American family history and societal change.
While the books have changed over the years (entries on “first discipline” and “first tumble” were once commonplace), she has found a few constants.
The entries reveal a sense of wonder and joy on the part of the new parents. But they soon start to trail off after the first few months. There also is a near- total absence of books dedicated to any child other than the first-born.
“For pregnant people, there’s always this sense of, ‘What will my baby’s future be like?’ This sense of wonder, where you want to record everything,” said Golden, a retired Rutgers University professor. “You start off strong, and then you’re all sleep-deprived and, you know. … When the second one comes along, you don’t really have time to do it, and it’s just maybe not as exciting as it was the first time around.”
Tracey Fouche, an adoption attorney from Idaho who founded the Short Years baby book app, said the idea came to her when she was pregnant with her third child. At 2 a.m. one night, she was staring at the ceiling, thinking about how behind she was with her soon-to-be middle baby’s book.
“I always felt this sense of guilt and sadness about not completing his book, but my hands were so full with caring for a toddler, baby and trying to work that I just couldn’t seem to make time for it,” she said.
She created the app with her husband, a software developer. It asks parents several different questions each week (such as what outfit the baby wore home from the hospital, or what their daily routine was like when the baby was 10 months old) that they can either fill out or swipe up to skip. Along with uploaded photos, the responses fill out pages of a memory book that’s shipped to the parents’ home.
“As a mom, I know that when I look back on my children’s baby books, I want a book that is going to transport me back in time and make me say ‘Aha! I remember 6-month-old you,’” Fouche said.
Bespoke and beautiful, the app-created books have details that seem very 2021 — like options to include a social media pregnancy announcement and a sonogram image, or to tailor the copy for single parents or adoptive families. Still, the luxe, gender-neutral designs aren’t so different from the baby books that first emerged as a phenomenon in the 1890s.
Back then, the books were an upper-class tradition, initially designed to record gifts given to a baby by wealthy relations or friends.
Bound in silk and other fabrics, they were handsomely illustrated and often included spaces for the name of the doctor and nanny, as well as the now-familiar questions like the baby’s height, weight and hair color.
Drawings of rosy-cheeked children by Humphrey Bogart’s mom, illustrator Maude Humphrey, filled one early edition. The popular books, called “Baby’s Record,” were bound in fabric and stamped with silver, and included questions about a number of firsts, including first outing, first short clothes and first appearance at the table, according to Golden’s research.
Baby books soon became popular with the middle classes when makers of infant formula and life insurance companies started sponsoring them. Public health officials — eager to have parents monitor and record babies’ growth, development, medical care and vaccinations — also began giving the books away.
After World War I, editions of baby books that included ads from local businesses boomed, and one, “The Book of Baby Mine,” was printed until 1981. Later in the 20th century, the books became more gendered (available in either pink or blue) and tailored to different religious denominations.
By the 2000s, traditional baby books faced a new challenge: the internet. Starting a blog about your baby and posting milestones electronically became a popular way to share memories with family and friends. Later, simply sharing updates on social media (including monthly Instagram photos) became common.
Mickey Pearson and his wife became baby bloggers after their son was born in 2006.
“I remember receiving a traditional baby book on the birth of our first kid,” Pearson said. “We probably still have it in a Rubbermaid bin somewhere, still completely empty with the exception of maybe an ultrasound picture and a hastily filled-in first page.”
For the Duluth couple, “the blog was far easier” than filling out a book and pasting in photos And blogging was “largely shared, though I was an at-home parent at the time,” Pearson said. “I had a nice digital camera, an abiding love of the internet and ample downtime during baby naps.”
These days, the Pearsons’ blog is not only obsolete, but difficult to search through. Other parents who started baby blogs in the early 2000s have let those domains expire.
Even though Minneapolis mom Jen Gilhoi ended the blog she’d kept for a decade, she wanted to preserve her children’s early history. So she archived her words and photographs in a three-volume set of books using the online photo company Shutterfly.
“It took me forever, but I was on a mission,” said Gilhoi, who likes to imagine her grandchildren poring over the books someday.
The idea that everything we need to finally complete a beautiful baby book already exists — it’s on our phone or in the cloud just waiting to be compiled somehow — is behind some of the latest baby book offerings.
Kept, which makes a printed product it calls a “childhood journal,” claims the volumes are easy to fill out, “even if your child is a few years old and you didn’t start from the beginning.”
The custom photo company Artifact Uprising makes gender-neutral books with “inclusive” prompts, and includes a code for free photo prints.
These companies and others are betting that parents still want something tangible.
“There’s no digital substitute that replaces a tangible heirloom handed down through a family,” said Emily Dubin, Artifact Uprising’s senior director of innovation.
Qeepsake founders Jeff and Stephanie McNeil initially thought the parents who use their text-based service wouldn’t care about having a physical book. They were focused on the idea of saving digital memories to an online journal. But they soon found members wanted something they could sit on the couch and flip through with their children.
“There’s something nice and old school and rewarding about the physical book,” Jeff McNeil said. “I really misjudged it early and that’s just one of the cool lessons that I’ve learned.”
Golden, the historian, hopes no matter what method today’s parents use, their efforts at keeping track of their babies’ daily life in this digital century are preserved. She worries essential information will be locked in private data storage or will be erased as domains expire and social media accounts are deleted.
The humble baby books at the collection in UCLA have been “gems” in her research — with details about how American families lived, how they fed and clothed their babies, and how they experienced events like the 1918 flu pandemic.
“There’s a lot of embedded history in them,” Golden said. “I wonder, will the people who follow have access to them, and the wonderful things they can teach?”