Tried & tested: Baby monitors: The baby boomers

Today's baby monitors doesn't just listen, they can film and detect changes in breathing too. Is all this really necessary, asks our panel?
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The Independent Culture
A RECENT McDonald's ad shows a husband sweeping in late for dinner at the in-laws. Upstairs, he explains to his sleeping baby that mother- in-law's cooking won't be such an ordeal as he's stopped off on the way for a Big Mac and fries. Cue downstairs to the dining room and his look of utter horror when he realises that the baby monitor is on ... With the exception of the odd faux pas, the baby monitor has benefited parents enormously, letting them enjoy more distance from their offspring in safety, while giving peace of mind. As one of our testers said, "Parenting is hard work and we need all the freedom we can get."


Three families tested the baby monitors with the help of their children, aged between 18 months and two years; mothers Amy Sinclair, Camilla Singh and Nicola Scicluna-Warren gave their verdicts. Head of Bio-Medical Engineering at Great Ormond Street Hospital for Children, Tim Mossman, gave expert advice on the apnoea monitors.


We looked for baby monitors that reassure rather than alarm people left in charge of babies. Most work on the transistor-radio approach, transmitting a baby's cries to a remote unit; a couple introduce unique features, such as CCTV or breathing sensors. In all of them, we sought clarity, accuracy and portability, with one small reservation: trials of distance in transmission proved hopelessly subjective, since any radio apparatus has to compete with rival transmissions from taxi firms, police cars and indeed other baby monitors in the neighbourhood. Unless you live in a blissfully quiet area, it seems there is no substitute for a human babysitter if you're going to dinner along the road.


Around pounds 50

Tomy is the brand leader in the baby-monitor market - and justly so, according to our trial. The Walkabout 3000 is a mobile version of the radio-type listening monitor. It was voted the winner, despite its higher than average price, because, as Nicola Scicluna-Warren reported, "It has been thought through to the very last detail. Sound quality is great and, barring television, it has all the features of the other standard monitors, plus one very important one: the parent's unit automatically recharges itself." The centre of the parent's unit can also be slipped out and clipped on your clothes or carried in a pocket. It's about the size and shape of a small bar of soap - much more minimal than other so-called portable monitors, which imply that you wear a wide leather belt round your waist at all times. "I hate the look of this thing - it looks like a Teletubby with its huge rubbery aerial, but it would have to be my number one choice," said Amy Sinclair. Yet despite the ugliness or otherwise of the design, testers found the Walkabout 3000 supremely practical; the "chunkiness" means it stands up properly; the baby's unit has a clip for pushchairs or cots; and there is a pleasant, soft night light. The auto-sound mode impressed Camilla Singh. "It only transmits sounds of a certain volume, so you hear cries and gurgles above the traffic and neighbour's TV, which is what drove us mad on the monitor we used to have."


pounds 31.99

The Babyclear monitor did not win accolades from the panel, who found this standard radio system with looped aerials light and insubstantial. "It feels and looks cheap," said Nicola Scicluna-Warren, who added, "We could hear Florence breathing, but there was much more interference." So much for Safe & Sound's claim to have "completely redesigned circuitry" to give clearer sound. Its "nasty thin wires" were not thought safe for children, who could pull out the jack plug and suck it. The product has a clip and stand and battery option for both parents' and baby's unit and is alleged to have a maximum transmitting distance of 150 metres, whereas most only claim 100 metres. None of the panellists has rooms this far apart, but the claim prompted a generic discussion on the benefits of mobility. "It's a good idea," commented Amy Sinclair, "but in reality as soon as the unit goes outside or is run on batteries, the risk of interference increases. It is also unpredictable and might work on some days but not on others. I have spent many days trying to relax in the garden with a baby alarm howling and hissing static next to me." Camilla Singh agreed: "It's best to leave the windows open, or plug the thing in in the kitchen with the volume on full."


pounds 25.99

"I liked this a lot," commented Nicola Scicluna-Warren of another product by Safe & Sound, which has squarish units decorated with the nursery character Mother Goose (matching accessories are available). "Both units are fairly substantial and look like old-fashioned transistor radios with strong little aerials that can't be pulled off." Camilla Singh also preferred the Mother Goose model - "It's a simple, unpretentious design, better than the so- called modern upright shape which most manufacturers seem to want to produce now. I would buy this if it were rechargeable." There are volume-indicator lights so that you can turn the sound off in company, but most importantly the sound quality is very good. "It's safe and sturdy for siblings," said Amy Sinclair, "although perhaps a little too attractive; our toddler kept pulling this one out to play with."


pounds 329

The first of this kind of device to be marketed as a baby monitor, Lindam's Sound and Vision consists of a microphone and camera with infra-red sensors which films the baby (even if the room is dark), transmitting black-and-white pictures and sound to the parent's 7in portable-television screen. You can connect it to a VCR to record, but it won't make scintillating viewing. "It was initially a lot of fun watching Florence in her cot to see what she really did when we weren't there, but it soon transpired she wasn't hiding anything from us," said Nicola Scicluna-Warren. Other testers found the conflict between distance and viewing quality posed problems. "It was incredibly difficult to mount the camera at an angle where we could actually see the baby; it can't be more than a metre away, otherwise you don't get a good picture," said Amy Sinclair. Although picture quality, everyone agreed, "is quite remarkable" (Camilla Singh), once the monitor was set up, most testers found that after the novelty had worn off, they didn't bother with the picture. "If Hamish was awake and crying, we went to him anyway, we didn't need to spy on him first," said Amy Sinclair. The consensus was that the monitor would be most suitable for invalids, who could use the call button to talk to a carer on camera. It might be suitable for first-time mothers who can't bear to leave their baby - but then having the baby in their bed or a sling might be more reassuring. As for monitoring a babysitter or nanny, forget it: they would move out of range too often.


Around pounds 26

"This monitor has utterly brilliant sound," reported Amy Sinclair. "As I lay in bed with the alarm next to me, I could hear my baby breathing, and I kept thinking she was actually there." Other testers concurred, despite the fact that the receiver was not necessarily close to their offspring. "I really like the fact that there are no dangling wires - that the design is really minimal," said Nicola Scicluna-Warren, "You don't have to have this weird bit of technology sat on your bedside table blinking at you and your baby all the time." It also has a soft night light. Its overall simplicity and low price made it popular with the whole panel; it wasn't voted the winner because the alarm only works when plugged into the mains, so you couldn't sit in the garden or take it to a restaurant in a hotel. As Camilla Singh said, "the just-in-case-I-need-a-portable element" would stop me buying it.


AS100 pounds 250, RE200 pounds 330

Camilla Singh suggested the use of an apnoea monitor, which sets off an alarm if breathing stops, for carers anxious about cot death. She had been given one by a friend, but admitted she had to abandon it after a few days, "because it went off too often, and each time I thought I would have a heart attack." The monitors are made by N H Eastwood & Son for "both hospital and home use", and come in two forms. The AS100 has a sensor on a "belt" connected to a remote alarm, while the RE200, which is better suited to small, less mobile babies, has a sensor pad which is placed under the cot mattress. Both register apnoeic episodes (irregular or cessation of respiration). But Tim Mossman, a consultant at Great Ormond Street, thought that though they are "reliable and sensitive" apnoea monitors are best left to hospitals, where trained staff can interpret the signals. "The trouble is that at home, a swinging cotside or even someone walking across the floor in the next room can trigger the detector, which panics the parents." A fact not widely appreciated is that babies do stop breathing occasionally - "They just forget to breathe; it's quite normal," he says - so unless medically advised, it may be better to remain blissfully unaware.


Tomy from Mothercare, Tesco and John Lewis or call the Tomy Careline on 01703 662600; N H Eastwood 0181 443 4567; Lindam Products 01423 560291; Safe & Sound 01423 501151. !