Wearables in Pediatrics

As adults, we’re probably all used to various mainstream health trackers and wearables now. From smart watches like Fitbit and Apple Watch to new rings like Oura. There’s also a growing list of wearables for specific health conditions to track blood sugar levels or blood pressure. Fitbit has even released an activity tracker for kids to track steps, physical activity, and their sleep in a gamified way. 

Over the last several years, the advances in baby tech have been incredible. From pacifiers that check their temperature to live feed monitors that detect crying. There’s one particular piece of baby technology that has many parents, especially new parents, sleeping more soundly – the Owlet Smart Sock.  

What is the Owlet Smart Sock? 

The Owlet Smart Sock is the first baby monitor to track your infant’s heart rate and oxygen levels. Paired with the Owlet Cam, you can stream 1080p HD video and sound. The smart sock sensor comes with 3 fabric socks (sizes 0-18 months) and a base station for your room. If your baby’s readings leave preset “safe” zones, you’ll receive a notification to the base station and to your phone letting you know. The safe zones were determined by a team of pulse oximetry specialists, pediatricians, neonatologists and pulmonologists. 

Owlet touts that 1000s of parents have shared how the sock changed their life. They’ve monitored 4.24 trillion heartbeats and have 100s of 5-star reviews.  

New Parent Experience 

When soon-to-be mom, Amber, was expecting her daughter she debated if the $400 price tag for the Owlet Monitor Duo was worth it. While her husband (who already had 2 children) felt it was an unnecessary purchase, he told her to buy it anyway.  

Fast forward a year later, their daughter Charlotte was 6 months old and fighting her first big sickness at the start of a global pandemic. Little Charlotte had a spiking fever, congestion and a terrible cough. They had visited their pediatrician several times and Charlotte had been tested for flu, RSV and strep – all were negative. They were sent home with an infant nebulizer and told to do breathing treatments 3-4 times per day. 

One evening after putting Charlotte to bed, Amber was watching TV downstairs when the Owlet app sounded a very loud alarm. She had heard the soft little lullaby that it plays when it can’t get a reading (because the baby had wiggled the sock off), but this sound was different. She rushed upstairs to find Charlotte coughing nonstop and she sounded incredibly wheezy. She was able to get Charlotte up, give her a breathing treatment, and check that her oxygen was back in the normal zone in less than 30 minutes. She was then able to call her pediatrician, who knew she had the Owlet smart sock, and confirm that she did not need to bring Charlotte in for an emergency visit. 

Can they do more harm than good?  

It’s very easy to understand the strong urge for parents to protect their babies, no matter what. Technology can give you a way to feel like you’re somewhat in control, but it’s important to remember that no technology is perfect.  

In an op-ed for the Journal of the American Medical Association, Dr. Bonafide explained that the market for baby monitors that sync to parents’ smartphones has rapidly expanded, but the research needed hasn’t been done yet. So, parents are buying them faster than researchers can prove that they work and are worth the money. Dr. Bonafide is a pediatrician and safety expert at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. 

In the piece, Dr. Bonafide spoke of a situation where a family had brought a perfectly healthy newborn into the emergency room because the alarm had gone off on his wearable baby monitor and they didn’t know why. It’s that type of situation, the doctor noted, that can make the baby monitors very misleading. They can lead to false alarms and unnecessary money and testing being done on infants that don’t need it. 

In Amber’s case, they were using the smart sock to monitor an illness that Charlotte was already battling and also called her pediatrician after the incident. It’s important to remember that wearables of any kind for anyone (adult or child) are not meant to replace a physician but to supplement the care and treatment that you or your child are already receiving.  

While infant wearables, like Owlet, are marketed as a way to help new parents catch up on sleep while the monitor keeps an eye on their baby, parents should not become complacent. It’s important to still practice safe sleep. Dr. Rachel Moon, who chairs the AAP Task Force on SIDS, worries that these devices provide a false sense of security.  

“My main concern is people becoming complacent. They decide that since the baby’s monitored it’s OK for them to not practice safe sleep,” said Moon, head of pediatrics for the University of Virginia School of Medicine. “Using a monitor is a lot easier than practicing safe sleep. And then if the monitors don’t work, you’re just in a horrible situation then.” 

Should Parents Buy or Not Buy 

Dr. Bonafide suggests that parents who choose to purchase these monitors discuss it with their pediatrician. “They should know what they’re going to do if this monitor goes off in the middle of the night,” Bonafide said. “Have that conversation with the pediatrician before that occurs so you can really have a plan in place.” 

Parents should also keep in mind that devices like the Owlet are not 100% accurate. In a study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, the Owlet detected low oxygen levels accurately nearly 89 percent of the time.  

“A baby could actually be very sick and maybe the parent’s instinct is to say, I really ought to bring this baby in, but maybe they check the number and the number can then falsely reassure, if they’re dealing with a monitor that’s not completely accurate,” Bonafide said. 

While technology is always advancing, especially in healthcare, it’s important to remember that it may not always be accurate and these devices are meant to supplement, not replace. Whether you’re a doctor, advanced practice provider, or parent – we’re curious, what are your thoughts on wearables for infants?