Selling Fear

Smart monitors cannot protect babies from SIDS, so what are they for?

The Mimo smart baby monitor

Courtesy of Tony Luong/Rest Devices

One of the biggest devices at this year’s Consumer Electronics Show, that wonderland of better living through gadgetry, was Mimo, a smart baby monitor that tracks your infant’s respiration, heart rate, skin temperature, sleep quality, and position through a cute little clip-on turtle attached to an organic cotton onesie. The information is then sent to your smartphone, giving you real-time data on exactly what’s going on with your child—every sigh, every hilarious startle reflex, every flutter—when you’re not in the same room or even the same ZIP code.

The rise of extreme baby monitoring and spreadsheet parenting has been duly noted, worried about, and made fun of plenty in recent years. But there’s another problem with Mimo and its peers, hinted at in the somewhat gauzy product pitch from Mimo executives, who say that their device is for parents who are constantly waking up in the night to check on their baby: “It will just give you that extra reassurance,” Dulcie Madden, co-founder of Rest Devices, the Boston-based tech company behind Mimo, told me.

The question is: Reassurance from what?

One of the things that struck me about Mimo’s marketing materials is that the makers frequently reference “your baby’s safety,” without clearly stating what it is you’re meant to be keeping your baby safe from. Already, there is so much that parents fear—news reports are a near-constant feed drip of horribleness happening to children—but the one thing new moms and dads fear most when their baby is sleeping is Sudden Infant Death Syndrome, or SIDS. SIDS, the most terrifying acronym in the parental lexicon, is the death of an otherwise healthy infant that cannot be explained by thorough investigation; it is heartbreaking, confounding, and all the more frightening because there is no reason. It is absolutely the thing that keeps us coming back to our baby’s crib with a stab of panic in our hearts, desperate to see the reassuring rise and fall of that tiny chest. Roughly 2,000 American babies die each year under SIDS circumstances; according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, SIDS is the third most frequent cause of infant mortality in America, behind birth defects and disorders related to being born prematurely. In terms of total numbers of deaths, however, the risk is still small—about 0.6 deaths attributed to Sudden Unexpected Infant Deaths, the umbrella term encompassing SIDS and other deaths without an immediate identifying cause, per 1,000 live births.*

When I asked Madden what exactly Mimo was keeping babies safe from, she explained that Mimo is not a medical device and does not claim to prevent or reduce the risk of SIDS. However, she acknowledged, without prompting, that’s precisely what the parents who’ve tested their product talk the most about. “The risk is very, very low, but all the same I think that if you’re a mom or a dad … it’s just something that’s there,” she said. So what parents want most out of a device like Mimo—protection from SIDS— is exactly what the Food and Drug Administration, the Consumer Product Safety Commission, the American Academy of Pediatrics, the CDC, the National Institutes of Health, Britain’s National Health Service, and even the device manufacturers themselves say it can’t do.

And yet: Madden says that preorders of the $199.99 starter kit via Rest Devices’ website have already sold out. And, as Slate has reported on in the past, Mimo is only one of a new generation of smart baby monitors that track vital stats: Owlet, which monitors your baby’s respiration through a sock and uses Bluetooth to get the information to your iPhone, has also sold out of its preorders, and Sproutling, wearable baby tech that monitors sleep patterns, is in development.

Infant monitors have made significant strides in the past two decades, evolving from simple listening devices (created in reaction to another baby-related scare: the Lindbergh kidnapping) to sophisticated sensors that can tell you if no motion has been detected in the crib for 20 seconds and that have color and night-vision video monitoring, temperature sensing, and two-way capability. And the SIDS rate has fallen significantly since the late 1980s and early 1990s. But the reason that the SIDS rate has declined has nothing to do with better monitoring technology, but rather simple behavioral changes—when major American health authorities began aggressively recommending that parents put their children to sleep on their backs rather than on their stomachs, SIDS deaths plummeted. (The rate of decline has largely plateaued since 2000. There are a number of reasons for this, but one particularly striking figure is that a quarter of American parents still put their babies to sleep on their stomachs, a percentage that rises to half among African-Americans; black babies die of SIDS twice as often as white babies.)

The most effective thing you can do to help reduce your baby’s risk of SIDS, say pediatricians, is to maintain a safe sleep environment—and not one that involves complicated home monitoring devices. “If sleep position and infant bedding are appropriate, there shouldn’t be much SIDS left to try to prevent with home monitors,” Dr. Alan Jobe of the Cincinnati Children’s Hospital wrote in an op-ed for the Journal of the American Medical Association in 2001. Twelve years later, the thinking remains the same. In September, the American Academy of Pediatrics revised and expanded its SIDS prevention recommendations. In addition to putting your baby to sleep on his or her back, APA recommendations include sharing a room with your infant but, crucially, not a bed; keeping baby’s sleeping area clear of any loose bedding, pillows, toys, or cords; and making sure your baby isn’t too warm when sleeping. Nos. 12 and 13 on the APA’s list of guidelines? “Avoid commercial devices marketed to reduce the risk of SIDS. … There is no evidence that these devices reduce the risk of SIDS or suffocation or that they are safe.” And: “Do not use home cardiorespiratory monitors as a strategy to reduce the risk of SIDS. … They might be of value for selected infants but should not be used routinely.” (In fact, there’s some evidence that they might not be safe: In November, monitor behemoth Angelcare voluntarily recalled 600,000 under-mattress sensor pads after two infants died of strangulation when the cord attached to the pad wrapped around their necks.)

The point is clear: Infant monitors, even the newest generation of smartphone-friendly wearable tech, do not reduce the risk of SIDS. And while the creators of devices like Mimo agree, Dr. Claire McCarthy, a pediatrician at Boston Children’s Hospital and a professor of pediatrics at Harvard Medical School, calls Mimo’s claim that it is not presenting its device as SIDS protection “disingenuous,” adding, “They’re totally playing on parents’ fears.” (McCarthy has other reasons to dislike these kinds of monitors, including how they can become a crutch, allowing parents to “cut corners if we think technology will alert us to every problem.”)

Fear, especially of something undefined, is pretty much the best sales motivator there is when it comes to baby products. Whether intentional or not, Mimo is tapping into the terror parents feel at being put in charge of a tiny life and the hope that they can buy their way out of it. Plus, Mimo and its ilk appeal to parents who may know better than to think that a silly crib tent or infant positioning pillow can do any good but who are trained to believe that the cooler the technology, the smarter the gadget, the more useful it actually is.

Ultimately, when it comes to keeping your child safe in her crib, however, the feeling of protection isn’t worth the price tag. Put your baby on her back like you already know to do, and then spend that $199.99 on something, anything, else.

Correction, Feb. 20, 2014: This article originally misstated the rate of deaths attributed to Sudden Unexpected Infant Deaths. It’s 0.6 deaths per 1,000 live births, not 6 per 1,000. (Return.)