The Big Problem With Baby Trackers

Parents have been promised a biometric revolution with smart mats, socks, and diapers. Are these great parenting tools, useless gadgets, or something more insidious?

Originally Published: 
Julia Barnes for Fatherly

Think of this as the golden age for paranoid parents. Modern moms and dads have the unprecedented ability to collect data on nearly every aspect of their child’s lives thanks to baby trackers that are so much more than specialized closed-circuit security cameras. You’d be hard-pressed to find a high-end baby monitor that can’t track a baby’s sleep schedule, breathing, and heart rate as they sleep, and then offer insights on how to best take care of the kid. Need more? A smart diaper just came out that can track bowel movements to help you with that end of things. Is all this biometric baby tracking revolutionary? Or does it just add up to a confusing and unhelpful pile of data?

That answer depends on the quality of the data and how a parent uses it. Baby trackers are not officially assessed or regulated by the Food and Drug Administration (the body that typically looks at health claims in products) or the Consumer Product Safety Commission. Indeed, the world of baby trackers — flashy, high-tech and promising as it seems — is the Wild West when it comes to data about your baby that could improve their health or well-being. They may, however, give anxious parents something to do while they worry.

Who Tracks the Baby Trackers?

Smart baby monitors come in a variety of shapes and sizes. The Mikubaby monitor, for instance, is a camera that has an array of sensors that can track a baby’s breathing as they sleep. The Owlet, on the other hand, is a wearable baby sock that monitors pulse rate and blood oxygen levels. The new AngelCare Baby Breathing Monitor is a mat installed under a baby’s mattress that tracks their movement “alerts you when their breathing slows and sends a movement to awake them,” according to a press release. Finally, the buzzed-about Lumi smart diaper by Pampers claims to make it “easy to track your baby’s feeding, diapering, sleep routines, and key milestones.”

Despite the variety of design, all of these devices share a common goal of promoting baby safety and well-being. “Promoting” is a key word here. While they track biometric baby data, they are not considered medical devices and are therefore free from oversight from the FDA, which ensures that medical devices are safe and accurate.

This lack of oversight prompted a study, published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, on the accuracy of smartphone-integrated infant pulse and oxygen monitoring systems. Conducted in conjunction with a team of physicians from the Philadelphia Children’s Hospital, the study found that the non-FDA approved devices gave inaccurate data compared to FDA-approved devices. Moreover, researchers were concerned that there weren’t really any medical indications for collecting the biometric data and worried that the use of smart baby monitors could have unintended consequences.

“As more neonate and infant vital sign monitors emerge in this largely unregulated market,” the authors concluded. “Physicians and parents should exercise caution incorporating data from these monitors into medical decisions.”

A smart baby monitoring system may have the same capabilities as FDA-approved devices, but they are not meant to provide diagnosis, treatment, prevention, or cures. At least not officially. And that’s where marketing pushes these devices into a strange regulatory gray area, according to Chris Lavanchy, Engineering Director of ECRI’s Health Devices Group. “The lines of these devices can be blurred in term of intent,” he says. “They may be marketed to imply that they are meant to prevent disease,” but claiming to help “wellbeing” or “peace of mind” is not making as specific as, say, the prevention of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome. Therefore, they avoid regulation.

The only time the federal government would be likely to look at these devices would be if they endangered the children they are meant to monitor. At that point, they would be scrutinized by the Consumer Product Safety Commission which could make recommendations for recalls or warn consumers. But that would take a good deal of time and any action on the part of companies would be voluntary.

Doing No Harm with Data

This is not to say a smart baby monitor could harm a child. To date, there have been no instances of a monitor itself causing harm to babies. But that doesn’t diminish the risk of bad data, particularly when it comes to how a parent might use the data they are collecting.

“If you’re tracking a baby’s weight over time, and know it’s going up in a predictable way, I think that’s interesting information,” Lavanchy says. “If the accuracy of measuring that weight isn’t good… I’m not sure there any potential consequences for the child’s health, unless you use that information to modify how much food you give the child or decide if you’re going to go see a doctor or not.” But what parent is going to not take action when faced such information?

When it comes down to it, data is, in fact, good for making decisions about kids’ health. Macro-data on kids in general, from rigorous scientific studies, is incredibly helpful in guiding parents. “There are topics on which the data on parenting is very helpful,” says Emily Oster a Brown University Professor of Economics and author of Cribsheet: A Data-Drive Guide to Better, More Relaxed Parenting. “Once you really look at the evidence you have a sense of how to trade off the cost and benefits of parenting decisions.”

But that might not true for specific biometric data that is connected to a single baby’s everyday life. “It’s tricky because of the kinds of data parents are collecting — about pooping, eating and sleeping. It’s not obvious that having that information is necessarily going to them sleep more or poop better,” Oster notes. “Some types of data give you the illusion of control but not actual control because the data is not often as predictive as formative as you might hope.”

Baby Track and Chill

The idea that smart baby monitors could be dangerous or give parents a false sense of security that puts a child at risk is laughable to Oster. She feels the greatest risk is that parents might lose sleep obsessing over data or panic if a device malfunctions and gives a false alarm.

As long as baby trackers are not being used to make decisions about the health and well being of a child, they are safe — if a bit of overkill.

There is in fact one pretty solid reason to plunk down hundreds of dollars on an app-enabled biometric smart baby monitor or high tech diaper, and it’s not for the great data. “Infants can be very overwhelming to be around, and these devices give you something to do,” Oster says. “But it’s really for you. Not for your baby.”

Lavanchy agrees that there is nothing inherently wrong with smart baby monitors as long as parents understand that they are far from necessary and the accuracy of their data may not make them particularly helpful.

“Think about how you want to use the information,” he says. “If it’s for your own personal entertainment and you have no particular interest in using it as a means to identify a problem, then there’s probably little risk.”

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