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The baby monitor scam

Baby monitors like the Mimo offer parents “reassurance,’’ the makers say.

Courtesy of Tony Luong/Rest Devices

Baby monitors like the Mimo offer parents “reassurance,’’ the makers say.

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.

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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 tech company behind Mimo, told me.

The question is: Reassurance from what?

The marketing materials for baby monitors 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.

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 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. In terms of total numbers of deaths, however, the risk is still small — about 6 deaths per 1,000 live births.

Fear, especially of something undefined, is pretty much the best sales motivator there is when it comes to baby products.

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 reduce the risk of SIDS. However, she acknowledged 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 Consumer Product Safety Commission, the American Academy of Pediatrics, the CDC, the National Institutes of Health, and even the device manufacturers themselves say it can't do.

And yet: Madden says that preorders of the $200 starter kit via Rest Devices' website have already sold out. And 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.

The SIDS rate has fallen significantly since the late 1980s and early 1990s. But that decline has nothing to do with better monitoring technology, but rather simple behavioral changes. When health authorities began aggressively recommending that parents put their children to sleep on their backs rather than on their stomachs, SIDS deaths plummeted. (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.)

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."

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.

The baby monitor scam 02/19/14 [Last modified: Wednesday, February 19, 2014 5:31pm]

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