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Baby tech is sold on fear, not practicality

Anxious parents can fall prey to fear-mongering marketers

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Buddhika Weerasinghe/Getty Images

Last night when I put my baby to bed, I closed the door, walked downstairs and made sure that the "parent" end of my audio monitor was turned on. My eight-month-old son wasn’t wearing a booty that monitored his oxygen levels or a onesie that measured his sleep patterns. He didn’t have a circular sensor clipped near his tiny chest to chart his breathing, nor did he sleep on a crib sheet that sensed his movements. His ankle wasn’t strapped with a band that interpreted his mood to warn me if he’d be calm, fussy, or angry when he woke.

Harrison had a pretty typical night’s sleep with just two wake-ups — not bad for an infant. And me? I managed to avoid anxiety over my child as he slept without spending the $1,000 required to buy all of the wearable baby tech products mentioned above.

None of these is a medical device, nor can any be used to prevent SIDS

Even in today’s tech-savvy world, my relatively low-tech baby monitoring style isn’t unusual. Lots of companies want to change that, and are trying to entice new parents to get on the high-tech bandwagon when it comes to monitoring babies’ sleeping positions, breathing patterns and temperature changes. The price for each device can cost in the range of $150 to $300. And none of these is a medical device, nor can any be used to prevent Sudden Infant Death Syndrome, or SIDS. SIDS is every parent's worst nightmare. It accounted for 1,500 infant deaths in 2014 and remains unexplained and unpredictable.

Still, this doesn’t stop companies from reminding parents what could happen if they don’t buy in.

To see what I mean, try opening the website for Owlet, a $249.99 baby booty that uses pulse oximetry to monitor a kid’s oxygen levels and heart rate. Before you can read anything about Owlet, the website immediately launches a video with three terrifying stories from mothers about how Owlet saved their children. The first mom says, "It started flashing red. I ran over there and unswaddled her. She was choking and she was blue around her mouth and nose." Another mom says, "One night it went off. I turned the lights on and noticed that he was blue around the mouth. I immediately stimulated him and he started breathing again."

Image credit: Owlet Baby Care.

"There’s a lot of fear-mongering, and marketers are capitalizing on the anxiety of first-time parents," Allyson Downey says. She runs weeSpring, a platform where people can rank baby products according to what they recommend or wish they hadn’t bought. "I think it’s important for people to understand it isn’t a necessity," she says about wearable baby tech. "But if that luxury helps parents literally sleep better at night … I am all for it."

Two summers ago, when my oldest child was almost one, I tested Mimo on him. Mimo uses onesies and crib sheets equipped with data-gathering sensors to understand your child’s sleep patterns, among other things. Its website is deliberately free of threatening language and frightening videos. Mimo CEO and co-founder, Dulcie Madden, says she has been approached by marketing companies who encouraged her to add scare tactics to the Mimo website to capitalize on parents’ fears and sell more devices.

Parents are already nervous

"I will never market to parents in a way that will make them doubt what they’re doing or what their baby is doing," says Madden. "I think it’s nuts."

If you don’t have kids or haven’t been in the baby trenches for a while, let me remind you: Parents are already nervous, overly anxious, sleep-deprived and scared of doing something wrong. The fear of SIDS is drummed into our brains. Marketing products to parents by hitting on these fears is cruel, especially when no device has been approved to prevent SIDS.

Even with its non-alarming marketing language, Mimo’s $199.99 price tag remains. And I didn’t know what to do with the data Mimo collected in its app. This is a common theme in wearables — even those designed for adults. The data points are overwhelming and can be challenging to interpret, or may lead parents to make inaccurate interpretations.

Mimo is working on ways to use baby sleep data to create sleep training suggestions for parents. Meanwhile, it’s building a device that acts on this sleep data: a Mimo Bottle Warmer that can tell when baby is about to wake up. It’s also a refrigerator, keeping bottles of breast milk cold until they’re needed, then warming the bottles just in time for you to get out of bed, retrieve the bottle and feed the baby.

Image credit: Mimo.

Some baby tech products try to address parental concerns other than sleep monitoring. Momsense lets moms hear their babies swallowing breastmilk to determine if a child is eating enough. How? You put a sticker on a sensor, stick the sensor to your baby’s jaw, put earbuds in your ears to listen as the baby swallows and watch an app screen on your phone or tablet to see how much breastmilk your kid is eating. Seriously. Momsense is coming out in June for $89.99.

Most of the wearable baby tech products I looked at include marketing language that describes how the device doesn’t intend to add stress to parenting. And I know parents who take comfort in these devices — especially if their children have health issues. But all I could think about while watching the Momsense tutorial video was a frazzled mom trying to calm a crying baby while scrambling in the dark to to find her Momsense sticker, sensor, earbuds, phone, burp cloth, breastfeeding pillow, and sanity.

Parents need to ignore scary marketing and choose the path that works for them and their baby

"Products like this one represent, to me, the death (or, more accurate, attempted murder) of intuition in parenting," says Jessica Shortall about Momsense. She wrote Work. Pump. Repeat. — a humorous survival guide for breastfeeding moms as they head back to work. She used a video monitor with her first child, but not with her second because it heightened her anxiety when she kept rolling over to check the monitor’s screen all night long. "Slowly, I got over being anxious and learned to trust that they’d be okay," she says. "That’s a valuable skill that parents are not developing."

Whether you’re monitoring your child’s sleep by using four different baby tech products or shirking all monitors in exchange for old-fashioned listening, the decision is intensely personal. Parents need to ignore scary marketing, grab a large cup of coffee and choose the path that works best for them and their baby.