FOR years, parents have spied on their sleeping infants with grainy video images from baby monitors. If they’re lucky, maybe that video played on a website or a smartphone.
Now the nursery is getting connected. A new generation of wearable devices promises to track your newborn’s sleeping habits, gathering data like whether babies are on their backs or stomachs, their breathing rates, skin temperature, room temperature and even, in some cases, blood-oxygen levels and heart rates.
It’s an interesting concept, though it’s not entirely clear what a parent who isn’t a doctor would do with all that information.
But there’s another, more immediate issue to be resolved before these new gadgets take their place beside the changing table and crib: The first generation of high-tech nursery devices simply didn’t work very well.
I tried the Mimo, which is a sleep-tracking device that connects to a customized bodysuit that a baby wears while sleeping, on a friend’s 11-month-old twins. A Mimo kit costs $200 and includes three “kimonos,” or button-up bodysuits.
Mimo’s technology includes a low-power Bluetooth wireless base station that must be plugged in inside the baby’s room, and a small plastic device (the “turtle”) that magnetically attaches to a sleeping baby’s clothing.
The turtle tracks the infant’s skin temperature, breathing, sleep position, movement and whether the baby is awake or asleep. The base station delivers audio from the room, but no video.
The snap-on turtle presents immediate impracticability for new parents.
First, the baby has to be dressed in one of the little kimonos for any nap or nighttime sleep you want to track. Anyone who has ever had an infant knows that even having three bodysuits doesn’t guarantee you’ll have a clean one when you need it — although these bodysuits are machine washable.
Additional bodysuits are available in packs of two for $29 (five standard outfits cost about $10 on Amazon), short sleeves only, in sizes up to 12 months.
Second, the turtle is a hard plastic, bulbous attachment on the baby’s belly, about two inches long and an inch and a half wide. Some children might object to it or just get distracted playing with it. The magnets used to attach the turtle to the bodysuit and the base station are strong, but if they come loose, they are easily lost.
To collect information, parents install a free application for iOS or Android operating systems. But connecting the base station to the app isn’t seamless: It involves plugging an included cable into both your phone and the base station, entering your Wi-Fi password and a six-digit code, and other tapping and navigation.
Once the device is connected, the monitoring is interesting but inconsistent. It uses breathing to determine whether the baby is asleep or awake, and you can set the app to send a notification to your phone’s lock screen if the baby rolls over, breathing changes or other activity occurs.
In my testing, the alerts didn’t initially work; however, the company said it had discovered the problem and fixed it, and I received notifications after that. Continue reading the main story
In addition, I found that the turtle had trouble staying connected, and sometimes the breathing monitoring would disappear. The app was a little slow to notice changes like rollovers, lagging about 30 seconds to a minute after the event.
You can check in on the baby’s statistics remotely and share them with another person like a partner, nanny or grandparent. The app includes a log of the baby’s sleep behavior and temperature and will eventually offer insights about sleeping and waking times and even compare your baby’s sleep patterns with other children’s.
But at the moment, it’s hard to figure out what parents can do with this data or how it could actually help babies sleep better.
“That’s an ongoing place of development for us,” said Dulcie Madden, chief executive of Rest Devices, the company that makes Mimo. She had some suggestions, like matching the data collected by the Mimo with instructions on sleep training, or comparing notes with other parents who use the device — although the company doesn’t yet offer any social networking or community features.
Mimo is just one of several devices that will focus on tracking infant sleep. Gadgets like the MonBaby, which is a button that you snap on to the front of a baby or toddler’s clothing during sleep, or the Sproutling, a data-tracking anklet, will also track sleep, breathing and motion. The Sproutling even promises to let you know if your baby is fussy upon waking.
These devices have room for improvement. When I tried a prototype of the MonBaby, it invariably confused sleeping on stomach with sleeping on back, and the alert it uses to let you know your baby has rolled onto his stomach is a terrifying klaxon that sounds like a smoke alarm. (Yes, you can turn it off.)
And some devices promise to collect even more specific information that most people would have trouble interpreting.
For example, the not-yet-released Owlet smart sock claims to be able to monitor the baby’s heart rate and even oxygen levels during sleep and displays it on a high to low scale. The app, which isn’t available for testing yet, is supposed to tell you if the readings are “normal.”
But would adding reams of data add more stress for parents, and give them a tech crutch, when developing old-fashioned parenting skills would suffice?
“If you’re letting that technology indicate on some monitor that your child is breathing O.K., that might be fine for not getting up one time in the night,” said Dr. Kimberly Kopko, co-director of the Parenting in Context Initiative at Cornell University. “But I wouldn’t recommend an over reliance on it. I really don’t think there’s any substitution for good old-fashioned monitoring, particularly of an infant.”
The creators of these devices have high hopes for future smart nurseries, as the technology improves.
Ms. Madden said Rest Devices planned to introduce a connected bottle warmer that would keep a bottle of milk or formula cool and then automatically start warming it when the Mimo tracking turtle sensed that a baby was waking up.
Jordan Monroe, co-founder of Owlet, said that the company’s focus on monitoring oxygen levels could someday make it a powerful tool for detecting serious health problems in infants and preventing things like suffocation (although he was careful to point out the Owlet is not a medical device).
And both Owlet and Sproutling hope to use anonymous data from infant tracking to advance research and their own product development. But it remains to be seen whether parents will opt in to sharing their children’s sleep data, even anonymously.
Most new parents obsess over their babies, especially over whether, how much and how well they are sleeping. But until these tools are more accurate and less complex, they are no substitute for a decent video monitor and an old-fashioned hand on the forehead.