The fear of something bad happening to your baby is all too real. It's what keeps parents glued to the baby monitor or quietly slipping into the nursery to look for the rise and fall of their child's chest. Over the past few years, it's also meant investing in an infant wearable that tracks a baby’s heart rate, blood oxygen level, movements and waking times at night.
This latest monitoring technology pledges to give parents peace of mind — but does it? Is having a baby's vitals at your fingertips reassuring, or just fueling our anxiety even more? As Kate Wehr, a freelance writer and mom in Montana, puts it: “I was the super-anxious mom who had to check everyone’s breathing multiple times a night no matter what monitoring we used.”
As more wearables enter the market — and in the case of the $299 Owlet Dream Sock, get clearance from the Food and Drug Administration — we asked the experts: What can these devices actually tell parents? Do they help keep babies safer? And does this technology actually put parents at ease or feed into their compulsion to keep tabs on — and fixate on — everything their little one is doing? Here's what to know.
What's the appeal of a wearable?
Just as an adult might track their health, fitness and sleep habits using tech like an Apple Watch, Oura smart ring or similar, infant wearables can tell parents things like how long (and how well) their baby is sleeping and other health stats. For a lot of parents concerned about Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS) or some other medical emergency, being able to keep tabs on their baby's heart rate and oxygen levels feels like an extra level of protection keeping their little one safe. That said, concerns have been raised over how accurate the data is, why false alarms happen (and how they give frazzled parents further stress) and whether constant monitoring is truly helpful — which may explain why it's taken years for FDA to voice approval.
What to know about the Owlet sock
This month, Owlet excitedly announced FDA clearance of its Dream Sock, an updated version of its popular infant wearable, which is worn wrapped around an infant's foot. It's now billed as “the first and only non-prescription baby monitor with FDA-cleared live health readings and health notifications for healthy babies between 1 to 18 months,” according to the company.
The clearance comes two years after Owlet took its Smart Sock off the market following a warning letter from the FDA due to concerns over how the medical device was being marketed. As an early precursor to the Dream Sock, the Smart Sock got glowing testimonials from parents who said it made them “worry less” and gave them reassurance. But there's been controversy, too, with some saying the nonstop monitoring made their anxieties worse. A proposed class action lawsuit, which was ultimately dismissed in 2020, outlined parents' complaints that they received false alarms and that the device did not function as advertised. Meanwhile, research in 2018 showed that the Smart Sock 2 and a similar wearable tested poorly when reading babies’ vital signs.
So what makes the FDA-cleared Dream Sock — which follows this summer's FDA clearance of Owlet's prescription-only BabySat medical device for infants with acute or chronic medical conditions — any different? Per Owlet, the new upgraded version (rolling out at the end of this year) has been "clinically and technically tested and proven to be as accurate as medical-grade baby monitoring technology." In addition to live health readings, parents will receive notifications "based on preset, clinically validated levels ... for low pulse rate, high heart rate and low oxygen saturation levels."
Can wearable baby monitors prevent SIDS?
Despite many parents reportedly investing in wearables due to a fear of adverse health outcomes like SIDS, the FDA news on the Owlet clearance notes that the Dream Sock is for home use and “not intended for use with infants previously diagnosed with cardiovascular and respiratory conditions." It also states that "the safety and effectiveness of this device for the detection or prevention of SIDS/SUID has not been established.” For its part, Owlet makes no such claims and also features a lengthy disclaimer on its website stressing that its products "are not medical devices. ... They do not and are not intended to diagnose, cure, treat, mitigate, alleviate or prevent any disease or health condition, or investigate, replace or modify anatomy or any physiological process."
“Medical sleep apnea monitors have not been shown to reduce the risk of sudden infant-related death,” Dr. Jenelle Ferry, a neonatologist at Pediatrix Medical Group, tells Yahoo Life.
Meanwhile, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) does not recommend using monitors, a representative tells Yahoo Life. The AAP’s policy statement on SIDS specifies that these are consumer wellness devices and are “not to be used to prevent sleep-related deaths.” The AAP statement also expresses concerns that using these monitors “will lead to parental complacency and decreased adherence to safe sleep standards.” Ultimately, the statement concludes, "A family’s decision to use monitors at home should not be considered a substitute for following AAP safe sleep guidelines."
What the experts say about wearable baby monitors
Along with the risk "of parental complacency" flagged by the AAP, some experts warn that the constant tracking of an infant's data through the use of wearables can take a toll on parents' mental health.
“Many of my patients have used Owlet for years,” says Dr. Natasha Burgert, a pediatrician and child health expert at Kansas City-based Pediatric Associates. “It's been my observation that the continuous monitoring of infants increases parental anxiety and leads to many unnecessary office visits.”
Ferry agrees. Though she acknowledges that some parents might benefit from using a wearable for their baby, "there is likely to be far more inaccurate and unhelpful data than there is positive data for the majority of infants.” She too has seen parents struggling with anxiety from overanalyzing readings or getting notifications telling them something is wrong, even when nothing is. Ferry adds that “any device placed on the limb of a baby will have limitations in its ability to accurately pick up signals all the time,” noting that an infant's movement can easily displace the device and set off an alarm.
“I know many parents who thought extra monitoring would bring them comfort, but then with use found that they actually brought them anxiety,” says Ferry. “Alarm fatigue is a well-described phenomenon. When many alarms go off that are ‘false alarms,’ we can become desensitized and start tuning some of them out. This is certainly a possibility with sleep-deprived parents of a newborn.”
Constant worrying can have downsides, says Dr. Raj Dasgupta, chief medical advisor at Sleepopolis. "While some moms might find that a wearable monitor for their infant helps to reduce their worries, others might find that they begin to constantly stress over the device, [increasing] their stress and anxiety," he says.
Are infant wearables ever recommended?
So when may these be appropriate? “I certainly have recommended the pulse ox measurement for kids in situations like babies who have chronic medical illnesses, a family history of SIDS or after an ICU stay,” says Burgert. “For these kids at high risk for a change in status, these devices make sense. For otherwise healthy babies, however, continuous monitoring devices offer little value for the cost and stress they commonly bring.”
If an infant has a medical condition that requires monitoring, a pediatrician will prescribe a medical device and then collect and interpret the data, notes Ferry. These are typically unique, short-term situations that must be discussed with a physician, rather than relying on an over-the-counter device.
Dasgupta stresses that doctors can offer guidance to parents considering a wearable. “Many products are marketed as necessary or helpful to new parents," he notes. "Be careful, do your research and ask your physician for recommendations about new products.”
For most healthy babies, a monitor isn't medically necessary — but may make moms and dads feel better. “A wearable monitor that provides information about breathing, temperature or sleeping position for infants could help some parents feel more at ease while their infant is sleeping,” Dasgupta says. "[But] they are not always accurate, so it's always best to speak with your doctor if you have any questions or concerns.”
Parents should also consider how the monitoring makes them feel: reassured, or paranoid? While there may be no cure for parental anxiety — especially at this fragile stage — it's good to know what tools help and which ones exacerbate.