I’m Scared of My Baby Monitor

Baby cams are sold on the notion that something could go disastrously wrong in the nursery.

A baby monitor with static on its screen
Getty; The Atlantic

You can now know everything about your baby at all times. An expectant parent of a certain type—cash-flush and availed of benzodiazepine, or maybe just fretful—will be dizzied by the options.

Consider the $300 “dream sock,” for sale again after a hiccup with the FDA, which latches on to your infant and beams numbers to your smartphone—numbers such as “110 beats per minute” observed from baby’s little heart, and “97% average O2” for the air inhaled by baby’s little lungs and distributed to baby’s little bloodstream. You might rent the Snoo, a popular bassinet that shimmies when your baby makes a peep, with various intensities depending on the nature of that peep. It transmits further health-tracking numbers to your mobile device; Snoo was rocking my child with Level 3 vibrations for 25 minutes last night, you will think to yourself, and seriously too. Many parents will use an app to parse the color of poop (you can generally rest easy, even when it’s green) and a smart thermometer that remains affixed below the armpit for up to 24 hours.

And any modern parent worth their weight in stress ulcers will buy a baby monitor to keep tabs on the nursery. Far from the radio contraptions you might remember from your own childhood, a great deal of the most popular models now connect to cameras and come packaged with a stand-alone screen; some feature artificial intelligence that will recognize when your baby’s face is covered by a foreign object or when the baby has coughed. (“When Cough Detection Alert is on,” one brand’s app explains, the monitor will “send alerts along with a short video of baby coughing.”) As my wife and I neared the arrival of our first child in February, we decided to keep at least this technological intervention modest: Just night vision and live video for us, thanks.

Anxiety followed, sure as the tide tugs the sand. A baby cam demands attention, even when nothing is happening, and that attention leads me to pick out little things that might be wrong. Is my baby breathing or isn’t he? I can’t see his arm; could it have fallen off in Merlin’s Magic Sleepsuit? My mom has told me a story, hopefully apocryphal, that my grandparents put my uncle in a cool oven when he cried as a baby, to minimize the sound. Now I worry when my nine-month-old hasn’t shifted positions enough on the video feed. Between their generation and mine, the television was invented, and I have a little handheld monitor with the most compelling—and nerve-racking—broadcast of all time.

Maybe no one demanded this advancement, but the market has a funny way of moving things along. The personal computer entered our homes, which became networked; then came the mobile phone. Consumers became accustomed to increasing amounts of knowing. Nanny cams arrived for the savviest worrywarts, and news segments about the abuse they captured gave everyone else an itch they wanted to scratch. Soon thereafter, the economy supported relatively affordable cameras and screens, so companies put them together in the name of keeping your infant safe. In a 2011 financial statement, the VTech corporation announced the coming of a baby monitor that could transmit nine video frames a second; even its $35 budget option far outpaces that now.

I wouldn’t recommend the purchase, necessarily, but I’m not sure that everyone really has a choice in the matter. Like many innovations sold to the anxious consumer, the baby camera presents an option that you don’t really want to say no to: If you can check in on your sleeping baby with a quick glance, why wouldn’t you? Caring for a newborn can feel like trying to keep a wad of sopping-wet paper towels from tearing, and that’s under ideal conditions; many parents struggle with great challenges and should be denied no assistance.

Experiences will, of course, vary. Romper ran the headline “Yes, Your Baby Monitor Is Making Your Anxiety Worse.” In The New Yorker, Karen Russell writes, “Perhaps the scariest thing is how quickly I’ve gotten over my unease; I’ve become addicted to live-streaming plotless footage of our baby.” And the author Megan Stielstra wrote for The Rumpus more than a decade ago about the baby cam as a kind of portal. A rougher example of the technology, her camera flipped between two frequency channels and was thus able to connect, unexpectedly, to a neighbor’s unit of the same model: “Whenever The Baby would fall asleep, I’d stare at his Day-Glo body on the monitor, making sure he wasn’t choking—or levitating or exploding or whatever horrible thing I’d imagine—and then, assured of his safety, I’d flip the channel to see how that other mother was doing.” Here she found a connection that helped her through the gloom of postpartum depression, whose symptoms, she said, can be “as varied as the flowers in a greenhouse.”

But there is always a lingering problem with these things. Baby cameras, like any monitoring or tracking technology, deliver information that the user is hardwired to take action against. They are premised on the notion that something could go disastrously wrong, and that you will stop it only because the device showed you the right thing at the right time. As Brian Lin, the CEO of the AI-baby-monitor company Cubo, told The Washington Post in 2020, “Fear is the quickest way to get people’s attention.” You don’t buy a monitor because of what you want to see (a peacefully sleeping baby): You buy one because of what you’re afraid to see. My colleague Adrienne LaFrance once called this new paradigm in infant tracking “the nursery as NICU.”

In this context, the image of a sleeping baby can be an invitation for a wandering mind to conjure disaster. I know my baby’s arm would not just fall off, under normal circumstances. But deprived of sleep, and with my attention split among the video feed and my howling cats and a sloppy enchilada, I’ve genuinely thought it happened. What else could I think? Our baby cam displays the temperature of the nursery, which introduces another agonizing line of inquiry: If the ideal temperature for the nursery is between 68 and 72 degrees, what should I do with a readout of 75? My wife and I paused The Great British Baking Show to argue over exactly this for 20 minutes on Saturday night.

No parent needs extra anxiety. “Nine times out of 10, you don’t really need to do anything,” Craig Garfield, a pediatrics professor at Northwestern University and a physician at Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago, told me when I called to ask about the anxiety that can be generated by these devices. He spoke also of hypervigilance, a state of constantly scanning your environment for threats and a common trait in new parents, which he said manufacturers are apt to exploit. Some things have made life better—knowing, for example, that a baby belongs in a properly configured crib, free of any blankets or soft things, and not a sock drawer—“and then there are some things, I think, have made it a little bit more stressful … and the companies that create these things kind of play to that,” Garfield said. “The technology that’s coming into today’s parents’ lives oftentimes provides an excessive amount of information without much context or health around it.”

Even so, no successful company releases supply where there is no demand. For parents, fear is a certainty. You can try to conquer that fear through a device; you will probably just compound it. The chill of panic is a good reason not to buy a baby cam, and exactly why you will.