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Baby monitor maker says non-parent expert can't relate

11/28/2014 05:00 EST | Updated 01/27/2015 05:59 EST
Does one need to be a parent to be a pediatrician?

Is someone who is childless somehow less qualified to criticize a device marketed to someone with kids?

It may seem ludicrous, but that is exactly what Owlet, the maker of a wearable baby monitor is suggesting in response to an article in the British Medical Journal.

David King is the non-parent in question. He's a clinical lecturer in pediatrics at the University of Sheffield.

King was writing about a new, hot seller — wearable devices for infants.  They're like those fitness bracelets you see people wearing at the gym that monitor your heart rate, except these are designed to be worn by babies as an anklet, or embedded in a sock or a onesie.

The gadgets typically claim to allow a parent to monitor the baby's heart rate, temperature, even their little one's oxygen level using their smartphone.  

But do they actually make your child safer?

The science 

In his article, 'Marketing wearable home baby monitors: real peace of mind?', David King says no.  

Such devices, King writes, "have no proved use in safeguarding infants or detecting health problems, and they certainly have no role in preventing SIDS [sudden infant death syndrome]."

King points out the devices have not been tested through clinical trials, they're unregulated, and there is no evidence they do what they claim.

King writes the manufacturers are careful to avoid any direct claim that their devices reduce the risk of SIDS.  

"However, parental fears about SIDS have driven the development of their products and the themes in their marketing," King writes.

The product and the sales pitch

Consider the Owlet Smart Sock, one of the devices mentioned specifically in King's article.  

Owlet's press materials clearly make the connection between the prevention of SIDS and its device.  A press release from Aug. 26, 2013, says co-founder and CEO Kurt Workman "first had the idea for the device when caring for his twin cousins who were born prematurely. He also had a cousin pass away from sudden infant death syndrome. The worry of whether or not an infant was getting enough oxygen was a personal one that hit close to home."

In this presentation at the 2014 Consumer Electronics show, Owlet co-Founder Jordan Monroe mentions SIDS and parental fear and then follows that up by saying "current monitors are old, outdated and they don't actually tell you if your baby is breathing or not. Until now."

"Owlet Vitals Monitor," Monroe then says is "a smart sock that sends heart rate and oxygen levels to a parent's smartphone and can alert you in case of an emergency."

That, King says, may lull parents into a false sense of security. 

We asked Owlet about King's article.

Kurt Workman told us in an email his product is reliable and accurate, it's designed for home use and is not intended for use as a medical device. 

"Parents simply want something that can monitor their child pro-actively [sic] (something that video and sound can't do)," Workman wrote.   

"We're tired of monitors that only serve a purpose when we're awake.  We want something that can let us rest easier.  That's the purpose of Owlet and for many parent's [sic] it is worth the expense".

It gets personal

Which brings us to the whole parenting question. Because in Workman's email back to CBC he wrote: 

"Dr. King is not a parent himself and I think that's one of the reasons he has a hard time relating to the product.  Some professionals have the notion that the less parents know, the better, we feel the opposite." 

Workman is correct.  David King isn't a parent.  

"In fact," King says, "I'm only 31 so it is not that unusual amongst my demographic".

It is also completely irrelevant, King says. Workman, he says, is probably using this to deflect attention away from the real issue.

"I can fully empathize that having a new baby is an anxious time. However, Owlet are marketing their device in a way which, in my opinion, exploits this anxiety." King says.

King says some makers of wearable baby monitors do mention in their fine print that it is not a medical device.  

Health Canada says a medical device "shall be effective for the medical conditions, purposes and uses for which it is manufactured, sold or represented."

Health Canada says in general, unless the makers of wearable devices for infants are directly making specific health claims, they would be considered consumer devices, like any other baby monitor.  

Regardless of classification, though, David King says wearable devices for babies should have a big disclaimer on the box that there is no evidence they reduce the risk of SIDS or have any other health benefits.

And health-care professionals, he says, should instead focus on providing advice that "has been proved to work, such as encouraging parents to put infants on their back to sleep."

If you have a consumer issue, contact Aaron Saltzman 

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