In their Atlanta home, 6-month-old Avery giggled and rolled on his piano mat, kicking his tiny feet into the air, while his mother, Crystal King, quietly checked his temperature on her cell phone.
Using her tablet, she could also monitor his breathing, body position, skin temperature and sleeping schedule, and an app notified her that it was time for Avery’s next bottle feeding.
“Avery eats like every three hours,” she said. “Having that built into an app is kind of cool, because it allows you to keep track.”
For CNN, King has been testing new and emerging health-monitoring technologies designed for babies, including a smart pacifier, which Avery would spit out, and a biometric-tracking onesie, which Avery hardly noticed he was wearing while he played on his mat, she said.
There are hundreds of high-tech gadgets on the market that promise to help new parents closely monitor their babies’ health and well-being. Often, they are no different than the Fitbits or Apple watches that adults wear, said Dr. Jennifer Shu, pediatrician at Children’s Medical Group in Atlanta.
“As far as wearable monitors for babies, that tends to be a little bit newer, and that may be some kind of monitor that has technology that’s paired up with a base station that then transmits information to a parent’s phone app,” Shu said.
“I recommend parents to follow their common sense. If it looks like something that could be safe that you want to try, then maybe talk it over with your pediatrician to see if they have any concerns,” she said. “But if it’s something that looks like it could be uncomfortable or hard to use, you may want to steer away from it.”
Wearables for wee ones
Can the information that these nursery technologies provide really be beneficial, or could they just be causing new parents to excessively worry?
King thinks smart thermometers and wearables could be useful to new parents, who could customize the amount of notifications they receive from a baby-monitoring app or technology in order to minimize feeling overwhelmed.
Technologies now available can help parents casually monitor a baby’s heart rate, temperature, feedings and sleep cycle, but experts warn against using them for valuable medical information or diagnoses.
For instance, a pacifier thermometer can be a convenient way to casually check your baby’s temperature at home, but for a medical emergency or when your child is sick, talk to your pediatrician about what’s recommended.
“It could alert a parent that the pacifier temperature is a little elevated (and) that they may want to recheck it using a rectal thermometer or a temporal artery thermometer,” Shu said.
“One important thing to keep in mind is that fever in a baby younger than about 2 to 3 months of age is always something to take very seriously, and that’s because fever in a very young infant can be a sign of a very significant infection that can spread through the body very quickly,” she said. “It’s something that you definitely want to talk to your pediatrician about right away.”
Additionally, the Food and Drug Administration has not cleared or approved any baby technologies or products as being able to prevent or reduce the risk of sudden infant death syndrome, known as SIDS. Some retail baby products have been marketed with false claims that they do, according to the FDA.
An opinion published in the medical journal JAMA in January even noted that “there is no evidence that consumer infant physiologic monitors are life-saving, and there is potential harm if parents choose to use them,” such as due to overdiagnosis by using consumer monitors.
On the other hand, it could be useful for tech-savvy parents to share the data from their smart thermometers or wearable devices with their pediatricians.
“In this new era of apps and tracking data, all this technology could be helpful, just as it’s helpful when a breastfeeding mom, for instance, shows me how well her baby’s been feeding,” Shu said.
“I take that information and put that together with how the baby looks in their examination,” she said. “But it’s not completely necessary, because we do look at the full big picture.”
King could see high-tech gadgets providing peace of mind at a time when parents already might have concerns about their child’s health, she said. For instance, Avery was born prematurely.
Parents of premature babies often need to be extra vigilant about infants’ feeding and sleep schedules.
Most premature babies have eight to 10 feedings a day, according to the American Academy of Family Physicians, and maintaining a regular feeding schedule can be stressful for a concerned parent.
There appear to be dozens of wearables for babies, such as wristbands that track heart rate, smart socks that track oxygen levels and a baby monitor button that snaps onto clothes. Those types of wearables for babies can set parents back a few hundred dollars.
As for smart thermometers, there are many brands in pacifier form, such as Vick’s or Blue Maestro’s Pacif-i, which connects to a smartphone. Smart thermometers can start around $20 and go up from there.
For parents considering investing in such technologies, Shu said they should be aware of potential safety hazards.
“Safety hazards could be things like getting entangled from wires, for example, if there are wires or having something that is soft or a choking hazard or any kind of suffocation hazard that might be in a crib or bassinet with a baby,” Shu said.
“We really don’t recommend that people depend on technology to take the place of common sense, and that means things like placing your baby on their back to go to sleep and having a bare crib. You don’t want anything soft or fluffy in the crib with the baby, because those kinds of things can suffocate and cause problems like SIDS,” she said. “Remember that products you buy are not a substitute for good adult supervision.”
It turns out that in the future, parents could use drones to supervise their children.
Could drones replace baby monitors?
A team of scientists from the University of South Australia recently designed and tested a drone that uses remote-sensing imaging systems to detect heart and respiratory rates in humans.
The researchers tested the drone on 15 healthy volunteers, including two children, 3 and 5 years old, said Javaan Chahl, a professor in the University of South Australia’s School of Engineering and a co-author of the study.
The researchers found that the drone achieved robust and accurate readings from the volunteers. The findings were published in the journal Biomedical Engineering OnLine in August.
“In other studies, we are exploring the idea of using this technique for infants. To date, we have captured data from quite a few infants, but all were in cots in their homes,” Chahl said.
“I would not be surprised if drones are eventually used to monitor many situations. They have an advantage of mobility that no ground robot can match, although their endurance is currently a bit limited,” he said. “As they become more intelligent, I expect that they will start to understand who and what they are looking at. For example, ‘Jasmine is skipping’ or even ‘Jimmy and Jia are chasing Anand.’ “
However, Chahl added that drones may not be absolutely necessary to use in the home, “since many people are already monitoring babies using cameras.”