TRIED & TESTED / Safe and sound: Baby monitors promise peace of mind to all anxious parents. Our expert panel investigates the claims

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The Independent Culture
Parents anxious to keep an eye on their baby at all times can now buy home TV-monitor systems like those used by security guards. But a much cheaper and more common device to bring peace of mind is the baby monitor, a radio that transmits the sound of the baby's crying to parents who are out of earshot. The most important difference between types of monitor is whether they are portable or not: some must be plugged into wall sockets while others run on batteries. You pay more for models where both parents' and baby's units are battery-run but they give you much more flexibility. There is a certain Squidgy factor to baby monitors. If you're not careful what you say within range of the baby's unit, you risk having your innermost secrets broadcast to all your dinner guests downstairs - or even to other monitor owners in the street. Owners also report picking up ghostly sounds of other babies' crying. Only you can stop yourself being indiscreet, but some models have a two-channel switch, which gives you the option of switching to another frequency if there's any interference from neighbours' monitors. Another useful feature to look out for is a light display, triggered by sound, that can alert you to your baby's cries.

We asked four sets of parents to try out five monitors, two plug-ins and three portables, to see which were best.

THE PANEL

Caroline and Michael Berkeley, parents of Oscar, three, and Bertie, one; Sarah and Jonathan Bayliss, parents of Walter, 10 months; Lindy Sharpe and Ian Jack, parents of Isabella, 19 months, and Alex, 4 months; Joan and Chris Smith, parents of Philip, 15 months. In every case, it was the mother who reported back to us.

THE TEST

The panel gave each monitor marks for convenience, quality of the sound reception, usefulness of the features, the monitor's looks and style, and value for money. Their scores were converted into a star rating.

*SAFE & SOUND

BABYLISTEN

around pounds 20. Both units

mains operated; 50m range

The testers didn't find plug-in monitors in general as convenient as the mobile ones. 'No good for using in the garden,' Caroline Berkeley said. Joan Smith pointed out that as this model has cordless units, the socket must be close enough to the baby's cot for the transmitter to pick up crying. But Caroline Berkeley, who has a toddler, thought the lack of a cord was an advantage for a plug-in monitor: 'No messy and dangerous cables.' The Babylisten doesn't have the features of more expensive models, such as a two-channel switch. Two testers also reported that the monitor made high levels of background noise, while Joan Smith found it wasn't loud enough if the television or music were playing: 'Cheap and better than nothing at all, but it wouldn't give me much reassurance,' she said.

*BOOTS CHATTERBABY

pounds 21.99. Both units mains operated;

60m range; baby comfort light

Our testers found little to choose between this and the Sight & Sound Babylisten. This monitor also plugs directly into the wall. Sarah Bayliss said: 'Often the socket is behind a piece of furniture which blocks off some sound and you have to scrabble around behind it to switch the monitor off and on.' The Chatterbaby didn't score very well on clarity of reception. Sarah Bayliss also said she would have found a two-channel switch useful: 'We managed to pick up the neighbour's phone.' But Lindy Sharpe, who liked the plug-in monitors, said: 'It's compact and does exactly what is needed.'

**FISHER-PRICE LIGHTS

AND SOUND MONITOR

around pounds 30. Both units portable;

use mains or battery; two-channel

switch; variable lights display;

100m range high frequency,

50m range low frequency

The characteristic Fisher-Price design of this portable monitor wasn't popular with most of our parents. 'It has an old-fashioned appearance and looks like a toy, which doesn't seem a good idea if you don't want it fiddled about with,' Sarah Bayliss said. 'It looks like a toy tape recorder and feels a bit like a toy, too: light and plasticky,' Caroline Berkeley said. Although it scored more highly for convenience than the plug-in monitors, two of our testers found it a bit big. Joan Smith, who thought it 'an excellent model all round', found the light display 'very useful if the parents have a lot of noise about'. She added: 'Definitely worth paying the extra, as the improvements over the cheaper models are substantial.'

**** TOMY .TX.- WALKABOUT 2000

around pounds 30. Both units portable; use

batteries or mains; variable lights

display; two-channel switch; range

100m; cable link option for privacy

Our panel's clear favourite, this monitor scored very highly for convenience, clarity of reception, and for its features. It also won top marks for its looks and for value for money. Testers picked out its light display for particular praise: 'The lights go from red to green when the baby is crying rather than just chattering, which is useful,' Sarah Bayliss said. Caroline Berkeley agreed: 'You can turn the sound of your little treasure's gurglings down - very useful for squeamish dinner party guests - yet still have a warning signal should baby start bawling.' Testers did point out a few potential disadvantages: it doesn't take rechargeable batteries and, as it doesn't plug directly into the wall, takes up a bit more space. If you are really unhappy about the neighbours overhearing what's going on in your home, an optional cable link ( pounds 2.99) guarantees transmission in privacy.

***SAFE & SOUND SUPER

COMPACT RECHARGEABLE

BABY MONITOR

around pounds 37. Both units portable;

use batteries or mains; batteries on

parents' unit (which last shorter time) rechargeable; two-channel switch;

100m range

This monitor scored quite strongly on most criteria. As with the other portables, the panel liked the flexibility of being able to use batteries rather than plugging the monitor in. But although this model has rechargeable batteries for the parents' unit and a two-channel switch, testers thought that, considering its price, it lacked some useful features such as a light display. 'Too expensive, when you can get one with practically the same options for less,' Lindy Sharpe said. Testers gave it good marks for reception, although Sarah Bayliss found that even the highest volume could not wake parents deep in sleep.

Prices may vary slightly.

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