Should baby monitors be equipped with Wi-Fi and cameras?

We talk to parents and experts about this divisive topic

Close up of baby monitor in kitchen
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When it comes to raising our children, it seems everything is up for debate. From the moment you give birth (did you go natural?) to the minute you start feeding (is breast best?), anyone who is anyone in your life will have an opinion on what kind of parent you should be – and they will feel obliged to share it. Baby monitors is another topic ­apparently up for discussion.

It all started harmlessly enough. The world's first baby monitor, the Radio Nurse, was designed for Zenith Radio Corporation in 1937 by Japanese-­American sculptor Isamu Noguchi. The story goes that the company's president, ­Eugene F McDonald Jr, had been rattled by the 1932 kidnapping of the Lindbergh baby, who was snatched from the family nursery, and wanted something that would allow him to hear what was going on in his daughter's room.

Fast-forward 80 years, and mums and dads are accessing their all-singing, all-dancing baby monitors on their mobile phones from across the city, able to watch and hear their child's every gurgle through a camera. Today, the question begs: have we become obsessed with monitoring our children?

'Sometimes ignorance is bliss'

Naturally, this parenting conundrum has us firmly divided into two camps. After eight decades, we’re all mostly comfortable with the idea of leaving listening devices by our cribs in case anything untoward goes down. But the concept of having a Wi-Fi-­enabled camera, allowing us to watch every little moment, is one that – to some – still leaves a lot to be desired.

Helen Farmer, a mum-of-two and founder of The Mothership DXB, says her family are “really old-school” and used an audio-based monitor that was handed down by a friend. “I think there’s a danger of watching all night and obsessing, so sometimes ignorance is bliss,” she says.

Helen Farmer prefers old-school audio baby monitors to video-equipped gadgets. Courtesy Natalie Robinson
Helen Farmer prefers old-school audio baby monitors to video-equipped gadgets. Courtesy Natalie Robinson

When asked whether or not she would think of investing in one with a camera in future, the Dubai Eye radio host says: “Honestly, no, we wouldn’t. If anything, we found that having the monitor on very low volume helped everyone sleep better, because I wasn’t checking all the time over normal nocturnal huffing, puffing and rolling around.”

Sleep is already elusive enough when babies are involved, but Farmer is not the only one who found it even more unattainable because of the monitor. Hearing everything coming out of the nursery is obviously going to keep parents awake, but it seems the tech can get in the way of helping your baby pick up good sleeping habits, too, even in surprising ways.

The dangers of going digital

“[It creates] a false sense of security and increased separation of babies and parents,” says Amy Vogelaar, a former midwife and co-founder of Love Parenting UAE. “Babies are supposed to sleep in the same room as and close to their parents for at least six months – and now experts are even saying at least one year. This is a very well-known way to reduce the risk of sudden infant death syndrome.

“Obviously, there are times that the baby is napping or in bed before parents, and a monitor is useful, but I worry that because you can see the baby you might be more inclined to put them in their own room at night as well.”

The mother-of-two has many apprehensions about digital, Wi-Fi-enabled monitors with cameras that extend far beyond the subject of sleep. That includes concerns surrounding potentially exposing children to radiation. "Our babies' skulls are thinner than ours and their brains are developing at a tremendous rate," she says.

Another worry is online security and privacy, as even password-­protected monitors have been known to be hacked, leaving you and your entire family vulnerable to strangers watching.

Vogelaar, whose daughters are now 11 and 14, also says that parents should not feel added pressure to finance unnecessarily expensive gadgets. "I'd save your money for something else and stick to the simplest monitor you can find – maybe even an old plug-in analogue one from some second-hand source," she suggests. "They worked fine for me in my day, for those rare times when my babies or toddlers were willing to sleep without me for a little while."

'Every parent is different'

Not everyone agrees with those sentiments, however. Zeba Sayed, a stay-at-home-mum to Inaya, 2, uses her camera-enabled baby monitor every time she steps out of the house. "I like to check if she's OK when I'm leaving her with my nanny. My daughter's not the most obedient and neither is my nanny," she says, with a laugh. "More than checking on the nanny, it's just for me to know if my daughter has finished her meal, if she's napping on time. I can't live without it."

That doesn’t mean Sayed is obsessed with it, though, she says. “If I’m out for three hours I’ll check thrice – once every hour. It’s not always on.” The Dubai resident compares herself to friends who use theirs all the time and some who have had CCTV cameras installed in their large family villas.

Elsewhere, parents take it even further and rely on newer wearable technology, such as the “smart sock” – which monitors a child’s oxygen levels, heart rate and temperature – and an “intelligent baby-feeding monitor” (but that’s another story). “Every parent is different, and I find peace in checking on her and knowing in the back of my mind that even without me she’s doing OK. It’s a nice tool to have,” Sayed says.

Controlling a parent’s decision-making?

Cecile de Scally, Malaak Mama & Baby Care’s lead midwife, agrees that these tools can be useful. “The monitors that are internet-based are amazing for allowing a father or mother to check in while they are out and about at work. It allows the parent to take the child to work with them, and lessen the feeling of guilt and distance,” she says.

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Low-cost baby monitors always worked wel​​​​l in the past. Getty​​​

It also lets those same working parents witness their baby's firsts, such as "the first crawl or step and excitement with a new toy", de Scally says. Some even allow you to talk to your child. "This may be reassuring for the little one to hear a parent's voice."

That’s not to say that de ­Scally doesn’t have any concerns. She does worry, for example, that the light from the monitor can disturb mum and dad’s sleep; that we end up over-parenting and fussing needlessly when a baby could have resettled themselves; and that it can potentially create a situation in which the child becomes too dependent on the caregiver(s) in the long term.

"A monitor is for safety and should not control the parent's decision-making," de Scally advises. "Some common sense needs to be applied. It definitely does not belong at a dinner table. Switch the monitor off, be present with your spouse and / or guests, and also have a little time off being mum and dad."

Be present in the moment

Similarly, Vogelaar reminds us that real-life connections should be front and centre of any parent-child relationship. "We like technology because we believe it makes our lives easier and better. With parenting, however, 'easier' is not necessarily better. Philosophically, I worry about technology coming between parents and children, rather than bringing them together." That's why she advocates massage, babywearing and co-sleeping.

It's important for parents also be present in the moment. Getty 
It's important for parents also be present in the moment. Getty 

“There is no need for expensive technology, because these ancient, low-cost or free methods work well and have always worked well,” she says. “I want parents to feel confident to trust their baby’s and their own ancient human instincts to cuddle together and have physical contact, which is essential for human babies’ survival and development.”

Like almost everything else in the emotional minefield that is parenting, it's up to you to do your research and decide what's best for you and your family. And don't let the naysayers get you down.


Read more:

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Talking to kids about their listening skills - and improving yours

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