JAN 27, 2017 1:38 PM PST

Wearables For Babies may be Overrated, Pediatricians Report

WRITTEN BY: Xuan Pham

Baby monitors have come a long way in the past few years. Now, not only do these devices alert parents of crying babies, now some monitors can help parents track a baby’s heart beat, breathing, and even blood oxygen levels. Is more information necessarily better when it comes to baby monitors? A new study suggests no. In fact, the study reports that such smartphone-integrated baby monitors may lead to unnecessary overdiagnoses.

Image: owletcare.com

The rise in wearable and smartphone technology did not pass by the baby goods industry unnoticed. Quick to capitalize on this trend, companies like Baby Vida, MonBaby, and Owlet began developing wearables designed for babies but with concerned parents in mind. The Owlet baby monitor, for example, is a  “smart sock” that’s worn on the baby’s foot. This device engages with the parent’s smartphones, and enables tracking of heart rate, respiration, and blood oxygen saturation.

On their website, the Owlet is advertised to parents as “Proactively tracks your baby’s heart rate and oxygen levels so you can have peace of mind.” The device alerts when a baby’s heart beat is abnormally fast or slow, when sleep apnea occurs, and when blood oxygen levels dip below 80 percent. Indeed, it’s easy to understand how new parents would find comfort in knowing that their baby is safe and well in the night.

But do these gadgets offer any level of protection against conditions like sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS)? A team of scientists from the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia investigated. In particular, they compared five leading smartphone-enabled baby monitors (Baby Vida, MonBaby, Owlet, Snuza Pico, and Sproutling).

They found “no medical indications for monitoring healthy infants at home,” the team wrote. In addition, doing so may not provide accurate or reliable data. "There is no publicly available evidence that these baby monitors are accurate in measuring a baby's vital signs," said David Jamison, the study’s co-author. "And since these baby monitors are not regulated by the FDA, we have to question what testing has been done to assure the safety and quality of these designs."

In particular, makers of these devices strategically highlight the potential to alert parents to SIDS while careful not to claim that their devices can prevent SIDS. Also known as crib death, SIDS is the unexplained death of an infant, usually under a year old and usually during sleep. Causes and risk factors for SIDS are unknown, and American Academy of Pediatrics specifies against using “home cardiorespiratory monitors as a strategy to reduce the risk of SIDS.”

More than misleading parents about the potential of their new baby gadget, the study points out that the monitors may trigger false alarms, which may lead to unnecessary time at the clinic or hospital. "There is a serious question whether [they] are appropriate in monitoring healthy infants. A single abnormal reading may cause overdiagnosis - an accurate detection that does not benefit a patient," said Christopher Bonafide, a pediatrician at CHOP and the study’s lead author.

Of note, Bonafide and colleagues report that sometimes the blood oxygen saturation of infants will dip below 80 percent only to recover without any clinical consequences. However, this may trigger alarms that could be costly in terms of insurance co-pays, time spent in the emergency room, and emotional toll.

"These devices are marketed aggressively to parents of healthy babies, promising peace of mind about their child's cardiorespiratory health. But there is no evidence that these consumer infant physiological monitors are life-saving or even accurate, and these products may cause unnecessary fear, uncertainty, and self-doubt in parents,” said Bonafide.

Given this, perhaps parents with newborns should reconsider whether an investment in a smartphone-enabled baby monitor is a smart idea.

Additional source: MNT

About the Author
  • I am a human geneticist, passionate about telling stories to make science more engaging and approachable. Find more of my writing at the Hopkins BioMedical Odyssey blog and at TheGeneTwist.com.
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