Cranky baby? There's an app for that

Dan Naumovich

For the price of a Happy Meal, parents can quiet a grocery store storm by purchasing a toy cell phone for their tempestuous child.

These plastic replicas — conveniently displayed in the checkout line where restless tots often reach the breaking point — feature blinking lights and beeping noises that might hold a child’s interest long enough to get the bags loaded in the van.

Or, a parent could hand over a $400 iPhone and let the child wander through the magical world of digital enchantment that Steve Jobs — the Willy Wonka of high-tech devices — has created.

It wasn’t Jobs’ intent to invent what is being hailed as a high-tech pacifier, but many parents are finding that it is one of the iPhone’s most indispensable features.

“There have been many times that my iPhone has saved our sanity, especially when he’s tired,” Liz Kerns said of her son, Caden, 2.

Kerns, of Chatham, Ill., said she uses the phone as a last resort, after crayons and toys fail to keep Caden content.

She has, however, loaded the phone with games designed to occupy and educate kids his age. Some of her son’s favorite games include Monster Maker with Elmo, KidArt, Bubbles, Sound Maker Shaker and Grand Piano Pro.

Kerns has even found a way for her phone to serve as a surrogate storyteller by downloading interactive electronic storybooks.

“It allows me to (record) the story in my own voice, and he can flip through the pages of the book and hear me reading the story. They are simple stories, but it makes it pretty personal with my voice,” she said.

Smart phone, smart kids

While an iPhone, or similar smartphones, can overwhelm an adult with its nearly endless array of functions, the device’s touch screen is perfectly suited to the developing mechanical and cognitive abilities of a child.

Many parents are finding that with time to explore, their children are mastering the iPhone almost as quickly as they did.

“I think Sienna will be more tech-savvy than I am as she already knows how to look for her apps, take pictures, make calls from my favorites screen and search for new apps on my phone,” said Sarah Engelbrecht of Springfield, Ill.

Engelbrecht employs her iPhone’s pacifier function sparingly — say, when she’s engaged in a conversation and wants to keep her daughter, Sienna, 3, occupied.

Lori Harlan-Huffstedtler’s 3-year-old daughter, Addison, on the other hand, has fully embraced the technology.

“Once the phone is in Addison’s hands, good luck prying it out,” she said.

In addition to competing for the iPhone, there are other consequences when allowing children unfettered access to it, especially as it relates to the phone’s browser.

Give a child an iPhone, and he or she has the whole World Wide Web handy — the good and the bad. There’s no telling what kind of page a child may land on while idly surfing.

And, of course, kids sometimes break things. A minimum number of external moving parts make the iPhone surprisingly durable, and it can survive a fall from a shopping cart. But a fall into a toilet or bubble bath is another matter all together.

“I gave up worrying about breaking the phone. I think my biggest problem is that they use it so much I’ve burned through three already. I just had a new one shipped to me this morning,” said Heather Winkler of Springfield. She said constant use by her daughters — Grace, 3, and Gabby, 2 — has wreaked havoc on her phone’s batteries.

The upside is the little surprises she finds on her phone. Her girls like to use the phone’s camera function to take self-portraits. When Winkler’s having a bad day at work, she’ll open the picture folder to look at their work.

“Sometimes it’s pictures of half their face or their toes. It always puts a smile on my face and makes my day better,” she said.

Supply and demand

Steve Jobs may never have imagined that his cutting-edge technology would become a hit with the cutting-teeth crowd (Kerns said her 1-year-old son, Grant, has tried to chew on her phone). The phenomena, however, isn’t lost on the cellular industry.

One developer has released an application titled Pacifier 1. Intended for children ages 1 to 3, it features shape and counting games, and eight songs. A recent commercial for AT&T shows actor Luke Wilson at a restaurant passing his phone to a child at an adjoining booth so the tot can marvel at the carrier’s 3G coverage.

Apple in particular has a vested interest in getting kids hooked early. If parents start having trouble retrieving their phone when they need to do something novel — such as make and old-fashioned telephone call — it may prompt them to buy their child an iPod Touch (essentially an iPhone without the phone.) Or perhaps they’ll upgrade to a newer generation phone and hand down their old one to their child.

None of the parents interviewed for this story have gotten to that point. Most say they use their phones when they absolutely, positively need their kids to be quiet.

This is the situation Candice Kern found herself in while at a local high school production of “Bye Bye Birdie.”

Her daughter Ashlyn, 4, was captivated by the opening act, but after intermission, she was becoming restless. So Kern did what patrons are usually asked not to do in a theater: She turned on her cellular phone.

In this instance, the phone didn’t cause a distraction, but helped avoid one.

“I had to be prepared to stall her so the rest of us could finish enjoying the event. This is where the iPhone comes in handy. It’s great in a pinch because it’s small, quiet and readily accessible in a matter of seconds,” Kern said.

State Journal-Register contributor Dan Naumovich is a freelance writer and business copywriter. He can be reached at