Technology and baby monitors: Why this pediatrician worries

Technology and baby monitors: Why this pediatrician worries

It’s scary being a parent, especially a first-time parent. I mean, talk about the responsibility: an actual human being is relying on you for survival. And basically, you have no idea what you are doing. Sometimes, it seems amazing that our species has made it this far.

So why not turn to technology? Why not wire your baby up and monitor their breathing and heart rate and movement? I mean, if doctors and hospitals do it, it’s got to be a good idea, right?

Not so much.

I totally get it. Like every new parent, I went in to check my babies’ breathing again and again. I did it more with my first couple of babies, but didn’t stop even when I was a veteran parent. I’ve watched or felt for the rising chest, listened for that barely perceptible sound of air moving, felt a wash of relief when a hand moved or a head turned.

Not that there would have been any particular reason why any of my babies would have stopped breathing, but I felt so much better when I could see they were fine — and sometimes felt so scared when I was in another room and couldn’t be sure. I had one of those baby monitors that you plugged in, that let you hear when the baby cries (or when an older sibling sneaks in and starts talking to them), but they certainly didn’t let me know everything was fine.

The newest gadgets can go into onesies, are wireless and can give you all sorts of information. They can even give you a continuous video feed. You literally never need to take your eyes off your baby. You’d think that as a mom and pediatrician I’d be happy about the idea of continuous monitoring and continuous reassurance. But I’m not.

First of all, the obvious reason: technology fails sometimes. Now, this is true for all technology and I’m not saying that we shouldn’t use phones or computers or other devices because they might fail. I love tech. But when we solely rely on it, we can get into trouble. We need to be able to manage without it, which in this case, is being able to know how often to look at a baby and to know what to look for. It also means knowing how to create a really safe environment for a baby — sometimes we cut corners if we think technology will alert us to every problem.

Not only does technology fail sometimes, it’s frequently confusing. As a doctor, there have definitely been times when a machine gives me data that don’t make sense. Sometimes a number can be off, but the child can be fine — or a number can be fine, but the child isn’t. Babies are more than their numbers and data — all of us are. I worry that if parents become fixated on the information they get from their gadgets, they won’t learn the rhythms of their babies, how to read cues, which noises mean something, which can be ignored or how to recognize the subtle signs of both illness and wellness.

I also worry that the latest gadgets will make parents even more anxious — and make them feel like they have to be staring at their gadgets all the time, like they have to know everything that is happening with their children every single second to be good parents. That’s not helpful — and could set parents up for some really unhealthy habits as their children grow.

Part of being a parent is figuring out how to handle not knowing everything that is happening every single second. Some of that is about preparation and safety and picking good caregivers — but some of it is about learning to take leaps of faith and about coming to peace with the fact that we can’t control everything in life.

As improbable as it may seem, our species has made it this far, mostly without baby monitors. Yes, technology can be helpful, but it’s really important that technology not get in the way of common sense — or learning good parenting instincts.  Because in parenthood, as in life, common sense and good instincts will get you much further than any technology ever could.

Claire McCarthy is a primary care physician and the medical director of Boston Children’s Hospital’s Martha Eliot Health Center.  She blogs at Thriving, the Boston Children’s Hospital blog, Vector, the Boston Children’s Hospital science and clinical innovation blog.

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  • momtwoboys

    I respectfully disagree Dr McCarthy. Whenever new technology is presented out of fear we dismiss it. I find this new gadget refreshing! To be able to see my infant from my phone wherever I am! That is amazing. For me personally its just another way for me to keep an eye on my DS’s caregiver. Abuse and neglect happen. I can’t even begin to bring up my friends, coworker’s horrible stories. I’m sure you unfortunately have seen the aftermath as well. I never understood why a mother being overly protective would be a negative. For every new mother we cope in different ways. Afterall we are learning our babies cues etc. Nothing wrong with that.

    • Chiked

      I agree.

  • Ron Smith

    Hi, Claire.

    I liked your article immensely. I strongly agree.

    Stacy and I will celebrate 36 years of marriage and I’m now at 30 years of medical practice. Long gone are the days when a birth was a birthday party where the big surprise was finding out if it was a boy or girl. I see very few parents resist the technological temptation to find out if the paint needs to be pink or blue!

    The dark side is the anxiety, and not reassurance, that I see technology in the nursery brings into the home.

    The heightened anxiety about SIDS really began its parallel ascent with the government budget some fifteen years ago thereabouts. I remember hearing with cautious optimism about the five non-US studies touting supine infant sleeping as the end-all of most of SIDS.

    It just didn’t pan out though, did it. But that is another topic.

    The result has been an increase in technological hunger to allay parental fears. The biggest thing increased technology seems to have done is increased the fears. There are just two pieces of advice that I give new parents bringing their bundle of joys in for their first visit.

    1. The rule of thumb about teething is that there is no rule of thumb about teething. They will come in when and in what order they come int! ;-)

    2. Kids grow up, thrive and survive not because of us as parents, but in spite of us!

    This of course is all in fun, and meant to lighten any new-parent anxiety. But the thread of truth is that we have become increasingly anxious over these new children. I doubt we exhibit that same increased fear of getting on the road to drive to work every day. Getting onto the road is something about which we subconsciously appreciate, but don’t perseverate about, the danger.

    The question is of course, why do parents now perseverate so much more on the ill possibilities. Any parent who says they never go into their sleeping child’s room, and doesn’t wonder if they will be breathing, is probably telling a falsehood.

    Life is unpredictable, at best. Being prepared for that does not not mean more technology, I think. It requires personal character.

    Warmest regards,

    Ron Smith, MD
    www (adot) ronsmithmd (adot) com

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