Welcome to my blog, which speaks to parents, professionals who work with children, and policy makers. Through stories from my behavioral pediatrics practice (with details changed to protect privacy) I will show how contemporary research in child development can be applied to support parents in their efforts to facilitate their children’s healthy emotional development. I will address factors that converge to obstruct such support. These include limited access to quality mental health care, influences of a powerful health insurance industry and intensive marketing efforts by the pharmaceutical industry.

Friday, November 12, 2010

High Tech Baby Monitors Prey on Parent's Vulnerabilities

Recently I was interviewed by a reporter about the effects of the newest baby monitors on parent-child relationships. A teddy bear with a camera in its nose hooks up to a TV, allowing parents to watch their baby's every move. One product called an exmobaby is actually worn against the baby's skin and measures heart rate and respirations. A CEO of the company is quoted a saying, presumably as a selling point, “This continuous monitoring in realtime will allow for an ‘emotional umbilical cord’ between mother and child.” My conversation with this reporter got me thinking.

When we become parents we have the opportunity to open our hearts to a love unlike any other. This love may begin at the moment a mother learns she is pregnant. But in opening ourselves to this love, we take a risk. Though the idea is mostly out of our conscious awareness, in becoming parents we make ourselves vulnerable to an unlikely but real possibility of unbearable loss.

A central task of parenting is to manage our anxiety around this possibility. Not only when we put our children to bed, but when we let them go down a slide, go to preschool, go skiing in Europe. We allow them to separate and grow up. All along we must learn to manage our anxiety.

When I was pregnant with my son, we were told that he might have a very serious heart condition. He was followed with yearly tests and then last spring, when he was 12, we were told that he and his heart had grown to the point where the doctors felt we didn't need to worry about it. Even now, every night when I say "Goodnight, I love you, see you in the morning," I remember the gripping fear of loss. But when at the age of eight he begged to go to sleep away camp like his big sister, we let him go.

Now along come these baby monitors which, in my opinion, abuse this vulnerability for profit. Certainly if a baby has an identified medical condition, monitoring of heart rate and respirations may be indicated. But these monitors need to be used carefully and under supervision of a health care provider. For a baby who has no such identified risk, there is no reason to monitor him. Putting a child under the age of six months to sleep on his back does more to protect him than any baby monitor ever could. A simple audio monitor that allows parents to hear a baby if he cries during the night many be helpful. But unless you have a huge house, or are having a party, you will generally be able to hear your baby's cry during the night, and even that may not be necessary.

Another drawback of these monitors is that they send parents a message that it is not OK to leave your baby to do adult activities. What about watching a movie instead of your baby on TV? I read a recent blog post with the title"Attachment Parenting-Is It a Prison for Moms? "Attachment parenting is a style of parenting described by William Sears that advocates for a mother to be with her child as much as possible, including carrying and cosleeping. (It is distinct from and unrelated to John Bowlby's attachment theory.) These are fine choices if parents wish to make them. But it is important to recognize that solid relationship between parents, one that is often fostered by having adult time together, can contribute significantly to a child's healthy emotional development. It helps both parents and child negotiate the challenging task of separation.

As I approach the age of 50, I am aware that I need to work hard to be open minded to new technologies. But to high tech baby monitors, I give it an unequivocal thumbs down.

3 comments:

  1. Some of the features come into their own with older kids. I use the "two way talk" on our monitor set all the time with our three year old. (Yes, it's quite useless on a crying baby.) I'd like a home intercom system, but I don't see anything on the market that's both cheap and flexible.

    If I had a video monitor set, I bet my dog would feel much less confident about stealing unattended food.

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  2. I think that parenting is a difficult task and anxiety travels with it. Parents always have to manage their anxiety not only for their own well-being but for the sake of their child and their relationship. Too much anxiety disrupts performance be it taking a test, driving, playing a sport, remembering, especially if the task is difficult, like parenting. Moreover, children read anxiety in parents and others to determine if the world is safe and when it is present it disrupts their being in the world and being with others. As Claudia says these monitors exploit normal anxiety and likely even increase it. If you want to have an emotional connection with your child be with them, play with them and just hang out. And also remember that sometimes being alone is fine and growth promoting for your baby and for you.
    Ed Tronick
    Professor, UMassBoston & Developmental Medicine, Childrens Hospital

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  3. Anything and everything can induce guilt in a mom, which is why this trend of spending 24/7 with baby is so hard on the working parent. At the end of the day, the healthiest, happiest babies seem to be raised by the healthiest, happiest moms. That may mean taking a break, getting a job or hiring help, but if it makes mom more even-keeled, it’s probably not a bad thing.

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