Day care centers in Japan's metropolitan areas have begun introducing sensors to monitor sleeping infants and prevent sudden deaths amid a serious staff shortage.
The use of information and communication technology is intended to help caregivers detect abnormalities early and reduce the psychological pressure of constantly checking the breathing and sleeping posture of children.
In 2016, there were 13 cases of children dying at nursery schools in Japan, of which 10 occurred during their sleep, according to the Cabinet Office.
The health ministry data also show Japan has roughly 100 cases every year of sudden infant death syndrome -- or unexplained death usually during sleep -- of a seemingly healthy baby less than a year old.
Although the cause of such deaths is unknown, the ministry urges caregivers to make sure children sleep on their back to lower the risk of death.
"It is helpful that (a device) accurately takes a record every five minutes," Misako Higuchi, head of a Global Kids nursery school in Tokyo's Shinjuku Ward, said in January.
A tablet device held by one of the school's staff members showed the posture of each child taking a nap at the facility with arrows indicating whether the child was "face up" or "on (his or her) side."
The day care center is taking part in an ICT experiment at nursery schools organized by a study group involving the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry.
Once attached to children's inner shirts, the round, flat sensors measuring about 4 centimeters in diameter will monitor their body movements while asleep and the tablets will alert caregivers if a child stops breathing or starts sleeping face down.
There are other types of sensors, including one that can be placed underneath bed sheets.
At the Global Kids nursery school in Shinjuku, staff members check and record the breathing and posture of the children every five minutes with or without sensors.
"It provides us with reassurance to know the machine is supporting us," said Higuchi. "Although we will not reduce the number of times our staff check the children, (the sensors) give us some relief psychologically."
The facility operator said it will consider whether to introduce the monitoring system after receiving feedback from its staff.
Some local governments are also promoting ICT introduction at nursery schools through subsidies. The Tokyo government decided last September to shoulder up to 1 million yen ($9,090) per facility for the purchase of sensors and other related devices.
The decision came after a 1-year-old boy died at a nursery school in Tokyo's Chuo Ward in March 2016 after staff failed to check on him for at least 50 minutes.
The parents of the boy have since urged nursery schools to try and make sure children sleep on their back.
"We have received a very large number of applications, although we are yet to finalize the total," said the Tokyo metropolitan government official in charge of the subsidy program.
Separately, Tokyo's Adachi Ward and the city of Kawaguchi in neighboring Saitama Prefecture are financially assisting the introduction of the monitoring system, while the health ministry has earmarked 310 million yen in the fiscal 2017 extra budget to help support the purchase of equipment to prevent accidents.
The government has been pushing ICT introduction at day care centers to reduce the amount of handwritten notes. Caregivers currently record and keep track of each child's attendance and communicate with their parents on how the children spent time at the nursery schools using notebooks.
By streamlining tasks through ICT, the government aims to alleviate the caregivers' workload in the hope it has a knock-on effect of increasing the capacity of the facilities, which in turn will allow more women to return to the workforce in a country struggling with labor shortage.
Many qualified nursery school teachers in Japan have left the industry due to the heavy workload and low wages that they believe do not match their responsibilities.
The average monthly wage of a nursery school worker was 216,000 yen, some 90,000 yen less than the average of all industries, according to a 2016 survey by the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry. The central and local governments have taken steps to narrow the wage gap.
Still, some nursery school staff members say ICT devices are not a panacea. "Sensors cannot fix the posture of children. Only humans can respond to various situations by looking at their faces," a caregiver said.
"The sensors merely play a supplementary role. Basically it is necessary to check (the situation) with human eyes," said a welfare ministry official.