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Do The Latest Baby Monitors Ease Fears or Add Anxiety? (#GotBitcoin?)

Tech companies promise to track your baby’s bedtime well-being so you can follow that longstanding parenting adage: Sleep when the baby sleeps. But advanced baby monitors like Owlet and Angelcare are causing parental anxiety, too. Do The Latest Baby Monitors Ease Fears or Add Anxiety? (#GotBitcoin?)

Hovering over a sleeping newborn, watching for the reassuring sign of his or her tiny chest rising and falling, is a parental rite of passage. It’s the most terrifying and primal part of caring for a new life: Will my baby survive the night?

New parents have more sophisticated baby monitors to choose from than ever, many of them made by startups. Grainy cameras and walkie-talkie-like devices are being upstaged by motion sensors that clip onto diapers or slip beneath mattresses, cameras that track breathing patterns and socks that measure babies’ heart rates and oxygen levels.

Tech companies are tapping into the fear. In a 2015 video for Baby Vida, a biometric sock, the co-founder asked: “What sound does your baby make if he stops breathing?”

Lauren Kichinko said her infant son’s Owlet Smart Sock,—one of the most popular new wearable baby monitors, ranging in price from $285 to $399—worked well for the first three months. Then it began acting up.

Twice a week, for a month and a half, often in the middle of the night, a lullaby would begin playing from the base station in her son’s room. She would race to check on him. “Every time it went off it was panic,” said the Washington, D.C., area program manager.

A notification on her phone from Owlet would say the app was down, but she wouldn’t see it until afterward.

There are many conditions that cause parents to worry about their baby’s breathing—from Sudden Unexpected Infant Death (which includes Sudden Infant Death Syndrome, aka SIDS), to sleep apnea to upper respiratory infections—but the American Academy of Pediatrics says no data suggests this type of consumer device, which isn’t regulated by the Food and Drug Administration, reduces the risk of sudden death.

If a baby really needs to be monitored, doctors say, it should be with FDA-approved devices whose makers have put them through a lengthy and costly process to show how safe and effective they are.

In fact, the death rate has fallen considerably since the early 1990s, when the American Academy of Pediatrics, along with other groups, launched a campaign to educate parents about safe-sleeping practices.

That hasn’t stopped money from pouring into the baby tech industry as investors bet that younger, tech-savvy parents want to collect and analyze every metric about their infant, even if there’s no medical need. The global “advanced baby monitor” market—which includes Owlet Baby Care Inc., along with other market leaders Angelcare Monitors Inc., Hisense Ltd., Mayborn Group Ltd. and Snuza International—is projected to reach nearly $943 million in sales in the next four years, up from $561 million now, according to London-based market-research firm Technavio.

When Lauren Gaede, a human-resources coordinator in Easley, S.C., was pregnant with her first child, she researched everything that could go wrong with newborns. She became terrified of SIDS, and bought an Owlet Smart Sock.

In January, when her baby was five weeks old, she went into her daughter’s room in the morning and noticed the sock had come off her foot, but the base station alarm never went off, and she didn’t get an app notification.

“It was a little scary because it’s something you’re relying on,” she said.

Owlet customer support said the lapse was due to a server update. Ms. Gaede said the sock has come off since then, but she’s received alerts when that’s happened. She remains a fan of the Owlet, saying it enables her to sleep well at night. Still, she tests the sock every three to four days to make sure it’s functional.

Kurt Workman, a Utah father of three who’s founder and chief executive of Owlet Baby Care, acknowledges there have been problems: “Wi-Fi, in particular, is tough to work with because there are so many routers and service providers.” He said the company, which has raised $50 million since 2014, employs 30 engineers who regularly conduct over-air updates on the devices. “We’re constantly working on improving the product,” he said. (While the company collects data anonymously for research purposes, it says it doesn’t share personal data with other companies.)

There Have Been Other Issues, Too.

The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia Research Institute published a report last year in the Journal of the American Medical Association about Owlet and Baby Vida, which both measured blood oxygen level with pulse oximetry. The doctors found the monitors sounded false alarms, sometimes indicating there were problems when there weren’t, and other times missing real problems.

Mr. Workman said there were limitations to the study, which the researchers acknowledged. “We feel very confident about the accuracy rate of our device,” he added. He expects to sell nearly 300,000 smart socks this year.

Baby Vida is no longer available for sale and its founders declined to comment.

Many parents have come to depend on their monitors. After Casey Georgeson’s first baby was born nine years ago, she would wake up every 45 minutes or so to check whether her baby, asleep in a bassinet next to her, was still breathing. The San Francisco-area beauty company owner said her husband didn’t want to get a monitor because he thought it would only add to the anxiety.

One night, after about four weeks, Ms. Georgeson discovered she had been sleeping with her hand on her daughter’s chest. She realized she was making herself crazy. She bought a commercial Angelcare monitor that slips beneath the mattress. If no movement has been detected for 20 seconds, it sounds an alarm.

Finally, She Was Able To Sleep.

When the baby was around four months old, the monitor alarmed several times over the course of two weeks. Her pediatrician said to bring the baby in if it happened again, but it never did. She went on to buy new models of the Angelcare when her second and third children were born. By then, she had known two families who had lost young babies to SIDS.

“If you follow all the safe-sleep practices and a monitor gives you peace of mind, there’s no downside,” she said.

The Angelcare monitors are low-tech relative to Owlet and others—on purpose—and they cost a lot less. The 20-year-old Montreal-based company experimented with smartphone connectivity but found it was problematic, said Alexe Del Degan, the company’s product-marketing manager. Not only did parents have to configure the monitor with a new Wi-Fi router whenever they went on vacation or visited someone, the company had to keep up with the many iOS upgrades. Another issue: “Parents are very nervous and want to watch their baby all the time and it drained their phone battery,” she said.

Some parents are forgoing the bells and whistles entirely. Becky Sulkin, a social worker in Minneapolis, looked into getting an Owlet when she had her first baby a year ago. After reading customer comments on the company’s Facebook page about false alarms, she decided against buying one for her son.

“I was already anxious about every little thing and I had to talk myself out of getting one because I couldn’t shoulder any more anxiety about his well-being,” she said.

Ms. Sulkin ended up choosing a standard camera monitor instead. “Every night before I go to sleep, the last thing I do is look at the baby monitor and see his chest rising and falling, and for me, that’s enough.”

What You Should Know

For new parents worried about their baby’s safety while sleeping, here are some tips:

Follow safe-sleeping guidelines. The American Academy of Pediatrics says infants should be placed on their backs to sleep until they are a year old. They should lie on a firm surface with no crib bumpers, blankets, stuffed animals or other objects near them that could block air, and far from any cords that could pose strangulation risk.

Sleep near, but not with, your baby. The group also recommends that babies sleep in the same room as their parents—but not in the same bed—for at least six months.

Using a baby monitor is fine—so long as it’s not creating anxiety. Pediatricians say it’s OK to use a monitor to check on your baby, as long as you understand that it’s not guaranteed to prevent problems. But if the monitor is causing more anxiety than peace, stop using it.

Use an FDA-approved device if there’s a medical problem. Dr. Daniel Weissbluth, a Chicago pediatrician, said the vast majority of babies don’t have a medical need for a monitor. Those with identified issues are usually sent home from the hospital with an approved medical device.

Discuss your anxieties with your doctor. It’s normal to feel nervous when caring for a newborn, but if you start to become consumed with worry about your baby’s well-being, talk to your doctor.

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