September is Baby Safety Month, which is a great time to take a look at infant and baby safety practices. Recommendations change and new information comes out all the time, so checking sites like JPMA and Safe Kids Worldwide on a regular basis is good practice for parents. Baby Safety Month is the perfect time to check in.
The New York Times ran a fascinating piece earlier this month on the use of the “Owlet Smart Sock” baby monitor in their Parenting section. (Note: I suggest a free subscription to the New York Times’ parenting newsletter, which has many relevant topics and is a great way stay up to date.) The Owlet is a device that wraps around an infant’s foot in order to monitor and record sleep patterns, oxygen levels, and the baby’s heart rate. It is just one of many such products on the market that profess to continually collect and track physiological information from a baby that a parent can access at any time from any location.
Parents set up the device in the crib and/or on the baby and connect it to an installed app on their smartphone. Through their phone or another device, they can receive continuous feedback and a video stream of what their baby is doing. This information can reassure anxious and concerned parents (aren't we all?) that their baby is continuing to breathe and provide information on respiration and oxygen levels.
However, researchers examining the issue of infant vital sign sensors and connected apps to monitor the health and wellness of a baby have found that the use of such products may very well increase anxiety among parents rather than decrease it. “The emerging market of smartphone-integrated infant physiologic monitors” published in the January 2017 issue of The Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) found that there are no medical indications for use of such monitors. They also note that the devices have not been evaluated properly and there have been no appropriate guidelines established. There is no evidence that any of these products have life-saving capabilities and on the contrary, there is potential for harm if they are used by families.
Case in point: In early September, the Owlet smartphone app stopped communicating with the device when the manufacturer pushed out an app update and their servers crashed. Parents were suddenly no longer able to “see” their baby’s status. Frustration, panic, and increased anxiety ensued, both at the lack of information and the inability to continue to track their baby’s status as a live stream. Social media platforms were bombarded with anxious and concerned parents stating their unhappiness at “false alarms” and the failure of the product to work as indicated.
Products like this create a false sense of trust that the product is working correctly and that baby is well. It also encourages a level of monitoring that increases stress and concern for parents. In my childbirth classes, parents ask about these devices all the time. I tell parents that if there is concern about baby's health and well being, baby's health care provider will provide guidance on the appropriate tools to use to monitor baby's health and safety. Unless parents are advised by a health care provider, products like this have been shown to perform unreliably (providing false positives and false negatives) and therefore increase stress and anxiety in those who are using them.
As a birth doula, I have observed a parent using this product. During a two-hour postpartum visit, they ran upstairs to the napping baby’s room several times to respond to an alert they received on their phone about baby’s oxygenation levels. This anxious parent was constantly on the move, double-checking an untested device. If anxiety reaches this level, it's best to meet with your baby's care provider to start a discussion about baby's health and how best to monitor their safety.
For now, experts believe that mass marketed at-home infant/baby monitoring products still need more regulatory guidance and research to evaluate them for safety, accuracy, and effectiveness before being recommended to families.
Bonafide, C. P., Jamison, D. T., & Foglia, E. E. (2017). The emerging market of smartphone-integrated infant physiologic monitors. Jama, 317(4), 353-354.