Baby Monitors 101
A baby monitor is, at its core, a simple radio system that transmits sound via radio waves from the transmitter (the unit in the baby’s room) to the receiver (the unit with the parents). This allows the parents to hear if the baby is awake, and thus they can go pick up their no-longer-sleeping infant before they start crying.
Some baby monitors have two-way talk, with built-in transmitters and receivers on both handsets. Some even include video, with a video camera integrated into the transmitter to allow the parents to watch their baby sleeping.
Types of Baby Monitors
When looking into baby monitors, you’ll find there are two different types available on the market:
Audio Only – This type of baby monitor will only transmit sound between the handsets. The receiver will usually switch on when the baby begins to cry, and send the signal to alert the parents the child is awake and fussy. These tend to be cheapest and simplest, though you can find some audio-only baby monitors that include a wide range of useful features.
Audio and Video – This type of baby monitor can transmit not only audio, but also video. Many video-capable baby monitors will have not only a built-in camera, but also night vision capabilities. After all, the baby is likely to be sleeping in a dark room, so you’ll need to be able to see when the baby is moving around or trying to climb out of bed. Thanks to the night vision/IR feature, you can watch your baby even in low-light environments. They tend to be pricier, though, so be aware that you’ll spend more for the device.
Baby monitors transmit the sound and video in one of two ways:
Analog – Analog baby monitors use a continuous signal (audio and/or video) and use a series of electronic pulses to beam the signal from the transmitter to the receiver. The signal is broken into individual components, transmitted, then reassembled so it seems like one continuous signal of voice and video.
Digital – Digital baby monitors encrypt a video or audio signal, scramble it into a series of codes, then use radio frequency waves to transmit that series of codes to the receiver. The receiver simply picks up the signal, puts the codes in the proper order, and plays the signal.
A new type of digital baby monitor has begun to appear on the market: wireless network monitors. Essentially, these are connected via your home’s WiFi to your tablet, smartphone, or computer. There is only one handset, the receiver, and you simply log it onto your home’s wireless network.
Once it’s connected, you use your mobile device or PC to connect to the device’s website, app, or IP address, and you’re able to monitor your child from wherever you are around the house.
Baby Monitor Features to Consider
When you are looking into buying a baby monitor for your infant, here are a few of the most important features to consider:
Corded or Cordless – While it’s always easier to simply plug the monitor into a wall socket, the last thing you want is for a power-outage to shut off your monitor. It may be easier to work with a monitor that is both corded and runs on battery power. However, be warned: monitors that run only on battery power will burn through even rechargeable batteries fairly quickly.
Screen Size – The size of the screen determines how clearly you’ll be able to see your baby. A larger screen, obviously, gives you a bigger, and often clearer, image of your child, so you can see if they’re sleeping comfortably. However, larger screens (built into the parent-held receiver unit) will typically be pricier, so you’ll end up spending more on the baby monitor set.
Color or Black and White – Many of the lower-budget baby monitors transmit video in black and white, which is clear enough to help you see your child sleeping or moving around. However, many parents prefer the color screen, which gives a clearer picture of your infant. Be aware that color screens tend to cost more than black and white.
Movement Monitor – This is a very nifty add-on that only comes with specific baby monitor sets. Essentially, this is a motion-sensitive pad that you insert beneath the baby’s mattress. When the baby is sleeping, the pad will monitor the mattress for even the slightest bit of motion. If there is no motion for 20 seconds, it will set off the alarm built into the receiver unit so you know your child may not be breathing or moving. For parents worried about SIDS, breathing issues, or any other sleep-related problems, it may be a good idea to consider a movement monitor.
Night Vision – For a video monitor, night vision is definitely a good feature to have. It films the sleeping child in infrared light, so you’ll be able to see them clearly even if the room is very dark or has little light.
Portable Parent Unit – The lower-budget baby monitors are usually designed to be plugged into a wall both in the child’s room and wherever the parent is. However, some of the pricier models include a mobile, battery-operated parent unit that can be clipped to the belt or carried in a shirt pocket. This allows you more freedom of movement while the child is sleeping so you can clean, exercise, shower, or move around the house.
Lights and Sounds – For restless infants, this can be a very useful feature. Some monitors come with built-in night lights to provide a gentle glow to light up a pitch black room. Built-in sounds and songs can help to soothe the child back to sleep when they wake up.
Two-Way Talk – All baby monitors transmit the sound from the baby’s unit to the parent’s unit, but two-way talk reverses the signal and allows you to talk to the baby. If they get fussy, the sound of your voice can help to calm them down, perhaps even enough to lull them back to sleep.
Temperature Sensor – While you may have the thermostat in your home pre-set to a specific temperature, it might be a good idea to monitor the temperature in your baby’s room as well. A built-in temperature sensor helps you know just how hot, warm, cool, or cold it is. It’s recommended that you maintain a temperature between 68 and 72 degrees F to encourage more comfortable sleep for your child.
Sound Activation – This is a handy feature that will prevent excess ambient noise from filtering through the baby monitor. Basically, this is the audio version of a motion detector, and it will only switch on when it detects an actual sound. This is great for helping you to sleep well through the night, yet still hear your baby crying.
Out of Range Indicator – Most baby monitors have a limited range (30 to 66 feet on average), but thick walls and floors can interfere with the connection. With a built-in out of range indicator, you’ll know when you’re too far away or in a room that doesn’t have a signal to the transmitter in your child’s room.
Volume Control – This is definitely a feature you want! A built-in volume control allows you to adjust how loud the sound coming from the parent unit is. If you’re trying to talk, watch TV, or relax, you’ll want to turn the sound down low. If you’re a deep sleeper, you may want the sound way up so you can hear it the moment your child cries.
Low Battery Indicator – If you’re using a battery-operated monitor, you’ll want to know when it’s running out of juice. An alert, light, or sound that lets you know when the battery’s in need of charging is a very handy feature to have!
Multiple Units – Most baby monitors come with two units: transmitter for the baby’s room and receiver for the parent. However, some can have multiple parent units connected so both you and your partner can monitor the child from wherever in the house you are. This is not a necessary feature, but it’s definitely convenient!
How to Choose the Right Baby Monitor For You
When shopping for a baby monitor, obviously you want to consider all the nifty features mentioned above. However, first there are a few more important things to consider:
Digital vs. Analog – Analog baby monitors tend to be cheaper, but digital tends to be safer. As the digital signals are encoded, there is less risk that they will be accidentally picked up by other baby monitors or radio enabled devices in your area.
Frequency – If your baby monitor operates on the same frequency as another device—say a cordless home phone or walkie talkie—it’s possible there will be static or cross-talk.
Before shopping for a baby monitor, check your other cordless devices to see what frequency they operate on. (You should be able to find it on a sticker in the back or beside the battery.) That way, you can be sure to choose a monitor that operates on a different frequency.
Or, buy a DECT-compatible monitor. DECT technology ensures that the monitor operates at 1.9 GHz, a frequency reserved by the FCC for voice-only applications.
Sound and Video Interference Filters – These built-in filters are designed to get rid of any extra ambient noise, as well as sharpen the video image you see on your receiver unit. These filters are very handy for blocking out “white noise”, making the sound from your monitor far less annoying—not to mention a whole lot clearer!
Number of receivers – If you have a small house, a single-unit receiver is more than enough. However, if both you and your partner work from home or you have an extra-large house, it may be a good idea to look into a multi-unit set, including portable monitors. That way, it’ll be easier to keep a close eye and ear on your baby no matter where you are or what you’re doing.
Range – The package of the baby monitor sets will usually come with clear details on the monitor’s range, which will help you figure out how well it will work in your home. After you’ve bought the monitor you think works, set it up in your home and test it to see if the signal reaches the rooms you need it to. If the range isn’t great, consider spending a bit more for a monitor with a broader range.
Signal Encryption – This is necessary for two reasons: 1) it ensures that no other monitors in your neighborhood are picking up your signal, guaranteeing privacy; and 2) it prevents interference or cross-talk that could stop you from hearing your baby crying. Digital monitors are the only ones that offer signal encryption, so they may be the better choice—even though they end up costing you a bit more than analog.
Are There Any Dangers of Baby Monitors?
There are a few things to be aware of, and potentially concerned about, when buying and using a baby monitor in your home.
First, there is the risk that someone will be able to overhear what you’re saying in your home. This primarily occurs with analog monitors, though some digital monitors may be vulnerable as well. The fact that your monitor doesn’t have any built-in security features may mean that burglars can hear what’s happening in your home and know when you leave so they can rob the place.
One 2014 study found that children are more prone to absorb microwave radiation than adults, thanks to their thinner skulls and more absorbent brain tissue. Wireless devices like baby monitors emit microwave radiation, so many parents worry that the Wi-Fi signal could harm their child’s brain.
All monitors emit non-ionizing radiation, which can have two effects on the body: 1) a thermal effect, essentially heating up the tissues in our brains and bodies; and 2) a non-thermal effect, molecular changes that are much smaller but may be linked to a number of health problems ranging from reproductive defects to genetic damage to nervous and immune system dysfunction to cancer.
However, the World Health Organization has made it clear that there have been no adverse effects of baby monitors detected to date. The thermal effect of the radio waves is absorbed and diffused by the skin and superficial tissues, while the non-thermal effect has not yet produced any recorded side effects.
Are baby monitors 100% safe for use at home? The evidence points to yes in most cases, but it’s still important you’re aware of the potential dangers they pose.
Baby Monitor Safety Tips
If you’re going to use a baby monitor at home, it’s important to use it right! Here’s how to make it as effective as possible while still keeping your infant (and other children in your home) safe:
Place it on a solid surface – Make sure the baby monitor is someplace where it will stay steady and upright, and where the child’s movement won’t knock it over. The last thing you need is baby waking up crying, and with a bump on their head, because the baby monitor dropped on them while they slept.
NEVER put the monitor in the crib – Yes, the picture would be clearer, but there is a risk that your child can get tangled in the cord and suffocate. According to the Consumer Product Safety Commission, seven children have died since 2002 as a result of strangulation by monitor cords. Even though the chance of that happening is miniscule, don’t risk it! Make sure the monitor, even a wireless one, is well out of reach of your infant.
Be wary of cables and cords – If you’re using a corded baby monitor, make sure to tuck the cords safely out of reach of younger children. Your infant may not be at risk if the monitor is away from the crib, but your toddler or small child may be. You could also trip over an improperly-placed cord, which could damage the monitor.
Don’t rely on a monitor completely – If you’re worried about SIDS, respiratory issues, or other problems that have the potential to be serious, you can’t trust any baby monitor fully. Even motion monitoring pads aren’t fully reliable, so you should always be ready to check on your child yourself if you’re worried something might be wrong.
Check in regularly – Pop into the child’s room at least once every 15-30 minutes just to make sure all is well. Baby monitors aren’t a replacement for proper adult supervision, so use your eyes and ears to check on your child in person. Poor video quality and ineffective sound sensors may stop you from hearing your child moving or crying.
Keep away from liquids – Make sure not to place cups of water near the monitor, as a spill could short-circuit the wiring and cause a short that could electrocute you. Be wary of using it in the kitchen, bathroom, or laundry room—anywhere there’s a chance it could get wet.