Monitors Can Watch Baby's Breathing, but at What Risk?

Medically Reviewed by Hansa D. Bhargava, MD on March 06, 2019
3 min read

If you have a newborn in the family, you may be tempted by a new type of baby monitor designed to check vital signs while the child sleeps. Some of these devices are worn on the infant's foot or ankle and feature a pulse oximeter that monitors heart rate and oxygen level, sending the information to the parent's smartphone. An alarm sounds if the readings are abnormal.

As good as this may sound to anxious parents hoping to cut the risk of sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS), the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) warns against using these devices. The AAP has reviewed research on apnea monitors and found no evidence that they impact the prevention of SIDS in healthy babies. And a recent study found the new wearable monitors are often inaccurate, sending panicked parents and their babies to the hospital for unnecessary procedures.

The study suggests that the technology in these monitors isn't reliable. One of the brands tested detected low oxygen levels sometimes, but not consistently, while another brand missed all instances of low oxygen. False alarms about pulse rate were common. "These consumer devices aren't held to the same regulatory standard as medical care devices," says Liz Foglia, MD, a neonatologist at the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia and the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania, who co-authored the study.

She hopes companies keep working to come up with new types of reliable home devices; some babies with health problems do need monitoring. "I would love to see manufacturers get to a point that they get FDA approval so we have confidence that their device works," she says.

She worries that the current wearable monitors give parents a false sense of security, making them too relaxed about proven safe sleep habits. The AAP's recommendations include always putting your baby to sleep on their back on a firm surface with a tight sheet and no excess bedding.

Babies should sleep in the same room with their parents, but not on the same bed, and parents should keep their baby away from smokers and people using alcohol or drugs.

A mom herself, Foglia understands the worry that leads some parents to use sleep monitors. The newborn period can be overwhelming, given all the responsibility of keeping your baby safe and healthy, she says. But Foglia's work as a doctor and researcher gives her more perspective: "I think parents can feel empowered by the fact that there are proven practices that put your baby at the lowest possible risk for SIDS," she says.

If you’re a parent who’s thinking about getting one of these new devices, you could ask your pediatrician:

  • What do you think of wearable baby monitors? Despite the advice against these monitors, Foglia acknowledges that they remain popular among new parents. If you decide to use a wearable monitor on your baby, have an honest conversation with your pediatrician. Have they had any experience with them? Have other families in their practice used them?
  • If I use one of these monitors, how should I respond to an alarm? Ask your pediatrician what you should do if the alarm sounds. What signs or symptoms should you look for? In what situations would they want you to seek medical attention for your baby?
  • How should the wearable monitor affect the way I put my baby down to sleep? Foglia is concerned parents will think they can use a monitor and then place a baby on her stomach to sleep, or co-sleep. It's essential to stick with safe sleep practices proven to cut the odds of SIDS. "These monitors should not change your behavior at all," she says.

Find more articles, browse back issues, and read the current issue of WebMD Magazine.