Are the Latest Baby Monitors Doing Anyone Any Good?

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Pediatricians argue that consumer infant heart rate and oxygen monitors haven’t been tested thoroughly and could cause parents unnecessary worry.

By Nathan Collins

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(Photo: Owlet)

New parents know that nothing is more important than a baby’s comfort and health, so it makes sense that modern, technology-savvy moms and dads will want the latest in infant monitoring technology: cute little socks that monitor temperature, pulse, and blood oxygen levels. The problem is, there is absolutely no evidence that such advanced socks do anything but give new parents (metaphorical) heart attacks.

“There is no evidence that consumer infant physiological monitors are life saving, and there is potential for harm if parents choose to use them,” Christopher Bonafide, David Jamison, and Elizabeth Foglia write in the Journal of the American Medical Association.

Though manufacturers don’t explicitly say their devices can prevent sudden infant death syndrome and other unexpected deaths, they do strongly hint that they can alert parents when their children aren’t breathing, and therefore save lives. Jordan Monroe, whose company Owlet makes the Smart Sock baby monitor, put it this way in 2015, according to TechCrunch:

Andrew, Pia, and Easton. These are the names of the babies who were unable to breathe in the middle of the night, and their parents were alerted by the Owlet Monitor in time to intervene…. This is our announcement to the world today: Owlet has strong initial evidence that it really can alert parents if, for some reason, their baby is unable to breathe.

The problem, Bonafide, Jamison, and Foglia write, is that those claims have not been evaluated in a public forum, such as clinical trials or other academic studies, and the track record for similar devices is not great, even if they are based on standard pulse oximetry devices that hospitals have used for decades.

Even if physiological monitors are accurate and can detect when a baby stops breathing—as Owlet suggests in a statement posted yesterday in response to the JAMA article—“the clinical appropriateness of monitoring healthy infants would remain in question,” Bonafide and colleagues write. False positives are inevitable, they argue, and even when a baby’s heart rate or oxygen level is, in fact, temporarily low, that may not be a problem.

“For example, a low pulse oximetry alarm from a consumer monitor could prompt an emergency department visit with laboratory tests, imaging studies, and hospital admission. Rather than reassuring parents, these experiences may generate anxiety and a false assumption that their infant is at risk of dying,” the researchers write. “These considerations introduce the prospect that using a monitor could indirectly result in harm to infants and their families.”

That’s not to say sophisticated baby monitors are pointless—indeed, they might save lives. In select cases, such as premature babies with abnormal heart rhythms, such devices “may eventually be of value, but only if their safety, accuracy, and effectiveness are demonstrated,” the team writes.

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