Making My Baby a Smart Baby Was a Mistake

Making My Baby a Smart Baby Was a Mistake

When my daughter was about three hours old, she and my wife were sleeping soundly in the postpartum room at the hospital. I hadn’t slept in over 40 hours, but I was wide awake, worrying about my daughter’s feet. More specifically, her feet seemed to be elevated above her head. I thought I remembered something from one of the many things I’d read preparing for our first kid — weren’t newborns supposed to have their heads higher than their feet?

It was then that I made my first mistake as a father. I Googled. I scrolled through message boards and SEO-spam websites, learning stats about SIDS, reading a few horror stories, and considered calling in a nurse. Luckily, the battery on my phone died and my daughter woke up shortly after, hungry and absolutely fine.

Being a new parent is a wonderful, transformative thing. It’s also an object lesson in being terrified. I’ve panicked about losing things before: jobs, relationships, security deposits on apartments. Having a kid puts those minor anxieties into perspective … by creating an even bigger anxiety.

A growing number of smart, wearable baby monitors want to assuage that anxiety. They use sensors placed on your baby’s body to monitor things like heart rate, respiration, sleeping position, blood oxygen level, or body temperature, and warn you via your smartphone if anything should fall outside the range of normal. You can glance at your smartphone to see that the sensors are showing everything as normal — and if they aren’t, your phone and the baby monitor will start going nuts.

I’ll soon be staying at home with my daughter on paternity leave, taking care of her by myself while my wife returns to work. The idea of having one of these smart baby monitors to reassure me while she naps — or alert me if something is wrong — holds some real appeal. So I tried out three smart baby monitors: the Owlet Smart Sock, the MonBaby Smart Button, and the Snuza Pico. And what I quickly learned was that constant information does not equal comfort. In fact, for me, it inspired the opposite.

The Owlet Smart Sock uses infrared light to track your child’s heart rate and blood oxygen level (it’s roughly the same tech that’s used in an Apple Watch, minus the monitoring of blood oxygen levels). You pair a sock to a base station, and then strap the sock to your child’s foot. Pair up the sock to your phone and the base unit, and you get a second-by-second reading of your child’s heart rate and blood oxygen levels. If either dips too low, you get an alert on your phone and on the base station.

It was the most expensive option, selling at $299, and it felt like it. The software is sleek; the app feels like a website I would use to order expensive furniture. The sock is well-designed, with three options to fit your kid’s foot as he or she grows. And the base station is a smooth piece of white plastic with softly glowing lights — it wouldn’t look out of place next to a Google Wi-Fi unit. The range was good on the base station, which uses Bluetooth to transmit data — we were able to have our daughter napping in the kitchen while the base station was 50 feet away without issues. And unlike the other two devices I tried, I didn’t have any false alarms with the Owlet. (Unlike the other two units, however, it did try to upsell me to an $8 a month Owlet Connected Care app.) (150) add

The MonBaby Smart Button, available for $99, was overall the easiest to use. The sensor is basically a button about the size of a silver dollar that comes with two parts. There’s an outer rim that you put underneath your kid’s onesie or shirt, and then you snap the button into place outside. The MonBaby measures different things than the Owlet — it shows “breathing levels” by measuring the small movements of your baby’s torso; “activity levels,” which meant basically how much your kid is squirming; and whether your kid is sleeping on their back (good and safe) or on their stomach (bad and dangerous). (105) add

That said, it suffered from range issues. If my phone was more than about 25 feet away, the device would disconnect, rendering it essentially useless. It also gave me one false alarm — it warned me that my daughter had flipped over onto her stomach while I was sitting next to her, watching her sleep. If I had actually been sleeping through the night and the app had woken me up to tell me that my kid had rolled over, only to find her sleeping soundly on her back, I’d have been less than thrilled; sleep is a precious commodity when you’ve got an infant. (105) add

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The Snuza Pico sells for $149, and in many ways held the most promise. It offered to monitor the most stuff — not only whether my daughter was breathing and her position, but also her skin-temperature level and sleep patterns. If it detected no breathing movement for 15 seconds, it would vibrate to attempt to wake my daughter up. Five seconds after that, it would sound an alarm. I liked the idea of having something to give us a rough idea of her sleep cycle, and skin-temperature readings meant it could potentially catch a fever before we would notice.

In practice, it was the most aggravating to use. All three of the devices I tested require you to set up an account, but only the Pico required me to download an app, and then go to a website and type in a serial number written in very small numbers on the side of the device, and then return to the app. It’s some unneeded extra steps in a product meant to be used by harried and sleep-deprived parents. The Pico itself looks like if babies had pagers, and you put it on by clipping it to the front of your child’s diaper. While my daughter didn’t seem to mind wearing the Pico much, a baby goes through a stunning number of diapers in a day. Transferring the Pico from diaper to diaper during a diaper change — already a fraught and messy process, especially when your kid is feeling fussy — is annoying. (154) add

Some of the promised monitoring features just didn’t work — sleep-tracking required a firmware update that I couldn’t get to take, and there were some server issues that stymied me, despite help from the company’s CEO (customer support that I’m not sure an average parent could count on). The range was also particularly short — I essentially needed to leave my phone within about ten feet of my daughter in order for it to work. Even walking to the opposite corner of a room caused it to disconnect.

I also had a false alarm that my daughter had stopped breathing, although Snuza’s CEO said a firmware update would have prevented this. Whatever the cause, the false alarm was, well, alarming. I knew my daughter was fine because I was looking at her, but it did cause a loud ringing to emit from the Snuza unit itself, and required me to manually turn off a power button on the unit itself to turn the alarm off. My daughter, breathing peacefully, managed to sleep through the sound of the alarm going off; she didn’t sleep through me unzipping her hoodie, undoing the snaps on her onesie, and powering down the Pico unit. (112) add

I don’t envy the people who make these devices. Obviously, you’d want to err on the side of caution, and have devices that occasionally produce false positives rather than miss an actual case of a child who has stopped breathing or whose heart rate has dropped. But for parents who decided to regularly use one of these smart baby monitors, I think they would have to accept that false alarms would become part of their routine. And I wonder how effective that warning would be the fourth or fifth time it happens and your child is still fine.

All of these devices have reviews and testimonials from grateful parents on their websites, some with truly hair-raising stories, from finding their children not breathing in the middle of the night to severe illnesses caught early thanks to these monitors. But none of these devices has been approved for use as a medical device by the FDA, and a 2017 Journal of the American Medical Association warned that “there are no medical indications for monitoring healthy infants at home.” The American Academy for Pediatrics is even starker in its language, writing, “Do not use home cardiorespiratory monitors as a strategy to reduce the risk of SIDS.” (106) add

I also wondered about what, exactly, was happening to that data about what my daughter was doing while dozing. The privacy policies for Owlet, MonBaby, and Snuza all promise to anonymize data and not to share or sell your data to third parties. But they all also upload some data to their own servers, rather than keeping it strictly on your own device. If the last few years have proven anything, it’s that data servers are porous things.

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Despite some frustrations, I have to admit that there was something soothing when using these monitors. Having my phone next to my laptop and being able to glance down and check my kid’s health is just as habit-forming as checking social media. But by the same token, I found myself suddenly invested in numbers that may or may not have meant anything. And the problem with anything soothing is it only works while you have it; did I really want to have my kid hooked up to a remote sensor for the foreseeable future? Would that make her healthier? Would it make me happier? (104) add

Our daughter is now five weeks old, and we’re extremely fortunate; we have a healthy kid with a big set of lungs. My wife and I aren’t getting a ton of rest, but I’m not going on sleep-deprived Google jags about head versus feet elevation and SIDS. If anything, I expend more energy on avoiding most of that stuff. Another part of being a new parent is learning just how big the market is for companies to sell you shit based on fear. The ancient urges of protecting your kid at all costs meets capitalism, and it becomes a free-for-all; smart baby monitors are just one small part of it. (110) add

My wife and I don’t need a smart baby monitor — I’m not even sure that we need a regular old dumb baby monitor. If our daughter had serious health issues, perhaps I’d feel differently, though I think I’d probably still rely more on working closely with our pediatrician than relying on a gadget I can get off of Amazon. Smart baby monitors may promise parents peace of mind, but for the price and functionality they deliver, I think parents should feel something closer to preyed upon.

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