Words: Annie Ridout

Earlier this month, a new product hit the market, with much fanfare from its publicity team. Costing $500, and shippable around the world, “Journey 1 by Hyndsight Vision System,” the press release reads, “is a lightweight, fully wireless camera and monitor unit that can be used to help keep an eye on your children anywhere in the home or even in the garden… [they] can be mounted easily on any surface in seconds, no wiring is needed and a clear image with true depth of field is transmitted instantly making this system perfect for parents that wish to see what their children are up to whilst carrying on with everyday tasks.”

With sales in video monitoring systems on the up – they now sit alongside sound monitors in Amazon’s top 10 highest sellers – it seems, as parents, we are increasingly keen to keep a watchful eye on our babes. But are technological advances making our lives that bit easier, or are they creating a generation of paranoid parents (and super-rich manufacturers), hyping our own fears and projecting them onto the ones we are so eager to protect?

For me, as a relatively new mum, it is the fear of SIDS (Sudden Infant Death Syndrome, or cot death – when an otherwise healthy baby dies in their sleep) which was instilled during pregnancy that drives my need to employ an extra eye to watch over my 10-month-old daughter, Joni, as she sleeps. Indeed, David King, clinical lecturer in paediatrics at the University of Sheffield, told the British Medical Journal (BMJ) it is this anxiety driving the development of sophisticated – and expensive – monitoring systems in Western cultures. While the manufacturers do not claim that their devices reduce the risk, they might use it as a theme in their marketing – one press release stated that the inspiration for the product was that he “had a cousin pass away from [SIDS].”

Yet, speaking to a group of mums from London who became friends at antenatal class, it is clear that the growing popularity of so-called baby cams – monitoring devices that transmit images of the baby to a portable LCD screen, which first appeared on the market in 2010 – actually feeds a range of needs.

For some, these systems might offer reassurance but there is no evidence that monitors bought in normal shops (rather than medical suppliers) prevent SIDS

Rachel Paddon first opted for a video monitor because it cost a similar amount to the audio-only models but less than those with movement sensors. Today she has hers linked to four devices so that she and her husband, James, both have access to live-streaming of their daughter Sophie in her cot from their smart phones. Knowing how often I pick up my phone even without the option of seeing my baby soundly sleeping, I was interested to find out how often Paddon indulges her curiosity. “Not as often as I thought I would,” she says. “We weighed the risk of video being that we could watch her the whole time and consciously made the decision not to. Our choice of monitor supported that. By having it on your phone it gives the option to view but also means if you want to use your phone for other things you have to stop viewing. We felt if we got one with its own viewer then we would have it on the whole time. We now usually do one check that she is asleep and no more.”

Instead, she and James receive a text message if Sophie is disturbed in her sleep, meaning they do not need to constantly watch the monitor. On a night out she doesn’t check her phone but says: “I loved it when I went back to work as I could log on and see Sophie during the day. James did the same. It meant we got to see her when we missed her. It helped when I went back for keeping in touch days and was expressing at work.”

Jessamy Robinson also feels that having access to footage of her baby Theo will help when she starts travelling for work and is missing him. However, working from home can be a problem, as the screen occasionally distracts her. “But you get used to it,” she says, “so there is eventually less needless baby staring.” She and her partner like being able to keep an eye on Theo, particularly after catching him throwing up on camera when ill, and being able to immediately respond.

Babies, infants and young toddlers benefit from gradually learning about what it is to be separate but in a sense, good parenting presupposes infant monitoring at a fairly deep level

For some, these systems might offer reassurance but there is no evidence that monitors bought in normal shops (rather than medical suppliers) prevent SIDS, says Paediatrician Rachel Jones. Nevertheless, she still invested in a sound and movement alarm for her baby, thinking the movement alarm would help her feel less anxious when she was in a different room to her daughter, Ella. However, although she is aware of baby sleep guidelines – “they should sleep in their own cot, feet to foot, not over wrapped” – she says she does not always follow them, explaining that as parents you have to be flexible, and follow your instinct.

British child psychologist and academic Dr Mike Forrester says one of the problems with such surveillance systems is that the information conveyed is not always easy to interpret, especially for first-time parents who might not yet be au fait with what is ‘normal’ in infant sleep: “Very young infants may or may not look more disturbed or agitated, or even more still, than what the parent expects – for how long should a baby ‘not move’?” he asks.

In the infant’s first year of life, says Dr Forrester – who has written extensively on infant and early years development, including a book published earlier this year entitled Early Social Interaction – a child will be unaware of being closely watched, and so being under constant surveillance should not impact on their development. But at around 18 months of age, “children start responding to video cameras ‘in situ’, showing some recognition of the camera as a kind of cultural object.” And what about the issue of privacy, do babies need any? “All children,” he says, “babies, infants and young toddlers benefit from gradually learning about what it is to be separate but in a sense, good parenting presupposes infant monitoring at a fairly deep level. Too much or too little is what might be problematic.”

More in Features

Observer New Review Q&A

By , 22nd March 2022
An interview with Stephanie Merritt about Edith and Kim, the perils of writing about family, and why female spies often get overlooked

Researching Edith and Kim

By , 17th November 2021
From a compendium of stories about life at the Bauhaus to a Modernist memoir by the founder of the iconic Isokon, here are some of the books that inspired my forthcoming novel

Book festivals 2021

By , 19th August 2021
From a celebration of the life of John le Carré at Cheltenham to an exploration of women and crime in Chiswick, please join me at one of the following events, across the country (and the internet!)