This is the eighth story in a nine-part series on the emerging wave of new-generation technology that monitors our health.
In the first few months with her infant daughter, Seraphina, Tammy Rasmussen found herself tiptoeing into her baby's room during the night to check that she was breathing okay.
"I don't know if all moms are like me, but I think a lot are," says Rasmussen, a 42-year-old mother of two from Estevan, Sask. "You're always concerned about your baby's breathing, there's the worry about SIDS [sudden infant death syndrome]."
A self-proclaimed "paranoid mom," Rasmussen was thrilled when she discovered a device that might help ease her concerns. She happened upon a TV segment about the Mimo, a wearable device for infants that tracks information such as body temperature, breathing rate and sleep position, then sends that information to a smartphone through an app. A turtle-shaped, wireless sensor is attached to a cotton onesie that the baby wears when sleeping.
"When I saw it on TV, I thought, I need one of those," says Rasmussen. She ordered the device from the U.S. Toys "R" Us website and had it shipped to her home. Seraphina is 17 months old now and no longer wears the garment, but Rasmussen says her experience with the Mimo was a positive one.
"I liked that I could track my daughter's breathing. I could just roll over and look at my phone and see, oh, she's good," says Rasmussen. "I didn't have to go into her room and fear I would wake her up. And when I wasn't home, I could see, oh, my husband or the babysitter has put her to bed, she's rolled over, she's breathing fine, her temperature is normal."
Mimo, which costs $200 (U.S.) for a "starter kit," is one of several wearable infant monitors marketed to parents. Though Mimo is the only one on the U.S. market right now (none of these products are available yet in Canadian stores), other incarnations of the infant wearable concept are either in crowd-sourcing or preorder mode, or preparing to start shipping in the next few months.
The Owlet Smart Sock ($250) monitors a baby's heart rate and oxygen level through a snug-fitting sock worn on one foot. The Sproutling ($249-$299) is a band that sits around baby's ankle and tracks heart rate, skin temperature, motion and sleep position. The MonBaby ($169) is a button that snaps on to any item of baby's clothing and monitors breathing rate, movement level and sleep position.
Though the interface of each device differs, they all relay an infant's data to parents' smartphones and sound alarms if something seems wrong.
Mike Gutner, chief operating officer of Boston-based Mimo, says the company created its device for parents who want to stay connected to their babies and understand more about what's going on when they are sleeping.
"We don't want to be a substitute for parental instinct, but at the same time, we are providing something to those parents that will make their lives a little easier," Gutner says. "There's also an element that you can connect from anywhere. You could be in Japan and your baby is asleep in Boston, and you could check in and see how your baby is doing."
It's no surprise that this niche is exploding with new products, says Clive Thompson, a technology writer for Wired magazine and The New York Times Magazine and author of the book, Smarter Than You Think: How Technology is Changing Our Minds for the Better.
"This whole category is likely to do well because it enters a field that already does very well," says Thompson. "Look at the explosion in high-end strollers – people spend money on their babies. What's driving this on the hardware side is that sensors are getting really cheap to make. And everyone knows that parents are desperate to find things to help them manage having kids."
Thompson points out that millennial parents in their 20s and early 30s are likely to be particularly interested in this kind of technology. "Millennial parents are going to feel super-comfortable with using their phones and technology to monitor their babies because they've been using it to quantify all aspects of their lives," he says. "They monitor friend counts on Facebook. So the idea of having data available about their babies is something they will understand."
For sleep-deprived and anxious parents concerned about their new baby, these wearable devices might seem like a godsend. But some in the medical community are questioning whether these kinds of devices could do more harm than good, particularly in relation to parents' fears about SIDS.
"It's clear that parents in this day and age are looking for aids or devices to help them feel better about the safety of their child," says Doug Campbell, a neonatologist and medical director of the neonatal intensive care unit at St. Michael's Hospital in Toronto. "But it's also clear from the evidence we have so far that no device that is marketed to parents can reduce the incidence of SIDS, and so I think that's really important for health care providers and parents to understand."
As far back as the 1970s, the U.S. medical community explored the possibility that SIDS was caused by sleep apnea. But epidemiological studies in the following two decades failed to show that cardiorespiratory monitors had any effect on reducing the incidence of SIDS in healthy infants. As a result, the American Academy of Pediatrics' Committee on Fetus and Newborn does not recommend use of infant home monitoring as a strategy to prevent SIDS in healthy infants.
The Canadian Paediatric Society (CPS) does not have a position on wearable infant monitors, but Campbell says he doesn't recommend them.
"I think it would be very unfortunate if parents bought these [devices] thinking it could reduce the incidence of SIDS," he says. "Unfortunately we don't know why SIDS occurs, but we knew there are ways parents can make their home safer for their baby, and I would worry that these devices would become a distracter and actually even contribute to more anxiety. Alarms may start going off, sleep patterns may be disrupted, so there may actually be harm from these devices."
To create a safe sleep environment and reduce the risk of SIDS, the CPS recommends that for the first six months, babies sleep on their back in a crib that meets Health Canada's most current safety standards. The CPS also recommends that parents share a room with their babies (but not a bed), keep soft materials like quilts and stuffed animals out of the crib, and refrain from smoking.
Aurore Côté, a pediatric respiratory medicine specialist at Montreal Children's Hospital, shares Campbell's concern that the use of wearable monitors for infants might cause parents to forgo proven methods of reducing the risk of SIDS.
"In the mid-90s in North America, we switched to babies sleeping on their back and not very long after there was 50 per cent less deaths," Côté says. "So if a parent was going to buy a wearable apparatus and then decide, my kid sleeps better on his stomach, that would be a big mistake."
Côté also has concerns about wearable infant monitors because she says the information they are transmitting may not give parents the whole story.
"If you have airway obstruction, you may still have breathing movement, but oxygen is not getting in. So those monitors that look at respiration or breathing movement are going to be totally useless," she says. "Some infants might not have a fever, but they could still be in distress. The fact that the monitor says that the child is okay, it doesn't mean that [the baby's] whole system is okay."
The information provided by a wearable monitor could make some parents more anxious, Côté adds, while others could feel more reassured. "I guess that what's important is that they are reassured in the right way," she says.
"We cannot stop very bright inventors from inventing all kinds of wearable things. I do think they are going to proliferate. What is worrying me a little bit is that parents would rely on the application instead of checking on their baby."
The manufacturers of these wearable infant monitors say they aren't trying to eliminate the need for parental supervision. (Websites for Mimo, Sproutling, Owlet and Monbaby all contain FAQs that state that these are not medical devices and cannot protect babies from SIDS.)
"There's no way technology can replace your instinct," says Chris Bruce, chief executive officer of San Francisco-based Sproutling. "At the end of the day, you have a cute baby, you want to hold them and cuddle them, I don't think technology will ever replace that and nor do we want it to. As parents, you're looking for things to enhance your instinct. … We're building products that we, as parents, think would be very beneficial."
If these devices prove popular with parents as more of them hit the market, it seems inevitable that companies will offer more and more ways to use technology as a parenting aid.
Mr. Gutner of Mimo says it plans to add more tools to its line that will help parents have more insight into things such as sleep-training, feeding, even potty training. "We've got a bottle warmer that will be coming out that will be able to keep a bottle cool as long as the parent wants, and then when the baby wakes up, the monitor will tell the warmer to start warming up the bottle," he says.
Kurt Workman, CEO at Owlet Smart Sock, says his company is working with doctors and pediatricians to create a next-generation wearable device that would be sent home with parents when babies leave the hospital. "And then, eventually, we think [wearable devices] will help parents understand when baby's going to get sick or how to help them sleep better," he says.
But again, it raises the question: Just because parents can use these kinds of devices, should they?
Thompson says that because he's "a bit of a nerd," he might have tried a wearable monitor or other tracking device if it had been available when his kids were babies. But having done a lot of research into the "quantified self" movement – people who track every aspect of their lives, from heart rate to diet to mood to glucose and oxygen levels – Thompson says he's learned that just because it's easy to collect data doesn't mean it's easy to make use of it.
"This is the great challenge of our data age," Thompson says. "The speed at which you can collect data is increasing exponentially, but the speed of our wisdom does not necessarily increase."
"The trick for parents, and the buyer beware part, is: Does this app or tracker flood you with data that actually confuses you, or does it help you make better sense of things? It's going to be a confusing time where we culturally figure out what is useful and what is not."