Posted On: January 3, 2014 by Patrick A. Malone

Baby Monitors Are Helpers, Not Caretakers

In the last generation, has there been a more pervasive new-parent product than baby monitors? Like cell phones and Miley Cyrus, you wonder how you ever got along without them.

OK, we’ll pass on Miley, but baby monitors have freed parents from much of the worry about what’s happening when their bundle of joy is out of sight.

Should they? Writing on, Dr. Claire McCarthy questions our adoration for technology, and our willingness to surrender certain oversight to it.

“[W]hy not why not turn to technology?” asks the medical director of the Martha Eliot Health Center at Boston Children’s Hospital. “Why not wire your baby up and monitor their breathing and heart rate and movement? I mean, if doctors and hospitals do it, it’s got to be a good idea, right?

“Not so much.”

McCarthy understands new-parent fear, the reality that you’re suddenly responsible for the survival of an otherwise helpless human being. She gets that first-time parents, despite being as prepared as they possibly can be, often have no clue what they’re doing, no manual to read, no sense of competence at this new job.

She was that person. “Like every new parent,” she writes, “I went in to check my babies’ breathing again and again. I did it more with my first couple of babies, but didn’t stop even when I was a veteran parent. I’ve watched or felt for the rising chest, listened for that barely perceptible sound of air moving, felt a wash of relief when a hand moved or a head turned.”

And she’s a doctor! Like every parent, though, her sense that everything was fine was reinforced by seeing that everything was fine. She had a plug-in model of baby monitor that enabled her to hear the baby cry, but that covered only one sense — she still couldn’t see her kid.

Newer models are tiny, wireless and provide all kinds of information. They can offer a continuous video feed so that you never have to take your eyes off your kid.

But that’s not necessarily a good thing. Here’s why:

  • Technology fails.
    You shouldn’t refuse to rely on technology because it’s not perfect, but relying on it alone makes you vulnerably inflexible. You need to be able to manage without it. Part of that management is knowing how often to look at a baby and what to look for. Knowing how to create a baby-safe environment. You’re more likely to cut corners, McCarthy says, if you trust technology to recognize and alert you to every problem.

  • Technology is confusing.
    McCarthy uses medical machinery that spits out data she can’t figure out. “Sometimes,” she says, “a number can be off, but the child can be fine — or a number can be fine, but the child isn’t. Babies are more than their numbers and data — all of us are.”

    If you become fixated on the information you get from a machine, you won’t learn the rhythms of your child. You won’t learn how to read cues, which noises mean something, which you can ignore. You might not recognize the subtle signs of both illness and wellness.

  • Technology can make you anxious.
    If you feel like you have to be staring at some gadget every waking hour, if you have to know everything that is happening with your child every single second to be a good parent, you won’t be. You will have no life beyond that of child caregiver, and you will be less father/mother than smother. That’s not helpful, and it’s not healthful.

“Part of being a parent,” McCarthy concludes, “is figuring out how to handle not knowing everything that is happening every single second. Some of that is about preparation and safety and picking good caregivers — but some of it is about learning to take leaps of faith and about coming to peace with the fact that we can’t control everything in life.”

Technology is an aid; it’s not a replacement for common sense or the need to cultivate good parenting instincts. Those are gifts any kid would be lucky to get.

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