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Baby monitors

Baby monitor buying guide

Last updated: April 2014

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Getting started

A baby monitor can give you peace of mind, letting you move around the house while your little one naps. While monitors can be a blessing, many parents complain about audio interference and batteries that die sooner than expected.

A monitor's job is to transmit recognizable sound and, in the case of video models, images. The challenge is to find a monitor that works with minimal interference--static, buzzing, or irritating noise--from other nearby electronic products and transmitters, including older cordless phones that might use the same frequency bands as your monitor.

Audio interference can take a lot of forms, including your neighbor's conversations (or even their baby's babble). That can make it difficult, if not impossible, to decipher the sounds coming from your own baby monitor.

If you have a video monitor, interference can mean fuzzy reception or, even more disturbing, images from other people's homes (and vice versa).

Overall, baby monitors can be as temperamental as a 2 year old. Interference is probably the biggest complaint, but parents also report such problems as low visibility, a shorter-than-expected reception range, and short battery life. Choose a monitor carefully, and make sure you'll be able to return it if it doesn't deliver.

Recommendations

The public airwaves carry all sorts of signals from a variety of devices. With all that traffic, there's bound to be some crossed signals. Many wireless products, such as older cordless phones, game consoles, laptops or netbooks, Bluetooth devices, other baby monitors, and even microwave ovens share the 2.4-gigahertz (GHz) radio frequency band.

There are steps you can take to minimize interference. One is to look for an audio baby monitor that uses Digital Enhanced Cordless Technology, or DECT.

Digital monitors are more private; unlike analog systems, their transmission is encoded so data can't be intercepted. But models that use wireless analog transmission don't provide privacy. Anyone with an RF scanner or a comparable wireless device might be able to listen in.

If you're concerned about interference, buy a digital or DECT model that's not on the same frequency band as other wireless products in your home.

Types

There are two basic types: audio and video/audio. Some are analog, others are digital. All monitors operate within a selected radio frequency band to send sound from a baby's room to a receiver in another room. Each monitor consists of a transmitter (the child/nursery unit) and one or more receivers. Prices range from about $25 to $150 for audio monitors and about $80 to $300 for audio/video monitors.

The higher the price, the more features you'll find, such as high-definition color monitors and a vibration feature so you can "feel" your baby's call.

The Safety 1st True View color video monitor, for example, has night vision, the option of corded or battery use for the monitor and the camera, and a power-saving video on/off option.

Keep in mind that a higher price doesn't always mean higher quality. Even the most sophisticated and expensive models can suffer from audio and video interference, fuzzy video reception, and faulty parts.

Audio monitors


You might prefer one that has lights as well as sound. All the audio monitors we rated had this feature. The Philips Avent DECT SCD510, which sells for about $120, has a series of small LED lights on the parent monitor. The louder the sound in your baby's room, the more lights go on, so you'll notice his crying even with the unit set on mute. Audio monitors are generally less expensive than audio/video models.

Analog monitors


These send signals from the monitor to the receiver in a straight shot, rather than being encrypted.

Digital monitors

These encode the signal as it travels between the monitor and the receiver, making it nearly impossible for recognizable sounds to be heard by others. To find one, look for the word "digital" on the packaging.

Video/audio monitors


Video/audio monitors have a small wall-mounted or tabletop camera to transmit images to a video monitor. The receiver may have a belt clip for portability.

Wireless network monitors


The Dropcam Echo is an example of a digital video camera system that uses your existing wireless network, allowing you to use your computer or other device as the receiver. (We haven't tested this type of monitor.) Parents go to the Dropcam website, sign in to their account, and then connect the Dropcam to their router using an Ethernet cable. (Once the connection is made, you don't need to use the cable again.) The Dropcam locates your wireless network, you enter your unit's serial number, and the unit begins streaming encrypted video that you can view on a computer, iPhone, iPad, or Android device. You mount the camera in your baby's room and plug it into an electrical outlet.

Like other systems, the Dropcam Echo allows you to put up more than one camera and monitor different rooms. The manufacturer says the Dropcam Echo automatically detects motion and sound, and you can get an e-mail message or notification on your smart phone or iPad when something changes in the baby's room. Dropcam will store your video feed for either a weekly or monthly fee.

Features


With so many wireless devices in the home potentially causing interference, it's important to make sure your baby monitor transmits sounds and images clearly. Here are some features to consider.

Frequency band

The closer your monitor's frequency is to that of another device, such as a cordless phone, the more likely it is that you'll hear static or cross talk.

More than one manufacturer has addressed the interference problem by using the 1.9-GHz frequency band. This frequency, reserved exclusively for voice-only applications by the Federal Communications Commission, is called DECT technology, for Digitally Enhanced Cordless Telecommunications.

So we recommend choosing a baby monitor that uses a different frequency band from your cordless phone and other wireless products in your home. The band that your cordless phone operates on should be printed somewhere on it. Remember that interference can vary widely depending on where you live, the electronic devices you have at home, and the ones your neighbors have. If, for example, you have a 2.4 GHz wireless product, such as an older cordless phone, choose a baby monitor that doesn't operate on the 2.4 GHz frequency band. People with newer phones that use DECT will have fewer issues with interference.

Batteries

Most monitor systems have an electrical cord or nonrechargeable battery option for the unit in the baby's room. And receivers typically have an electrical cord or rechargeable batteries. Some models are notorious for burning through batteries at an alarming rate. Parents have complained that even monitors sold with rechargeable batteries built in can drain quickly. Our baby monitor Ratings , available to subscribers, include an evaluation of battery life. Subscribers can also check out our battery report and Ratings (for subscribers).

Handheld audio/video parent unit

Video baby monitors, both digital and analog, feature a color LCD video screen in the portable unit so you can watch your baby without being tethered to a video console. But screen sizes vary, so make sure the model you're considering is large enough to see your baby clearly. Some versions let you control the brightness of the screen.

Night vision


Many audio/video monitors feature infrared light or "night vision" so you can see your baby on the monitor even when she's sleeping in a dark room. And some audio models feature a night light on the nursery unit that you can activate from the receiver. Other features may include adjustable brightness, and the ability to let you activate music or nature sounds to soothe your little sleeper by remote.

Temperature sensor

Some models have an adjustable sensor that monitors the temperature in your baby's room. The ideal temperature should be 68 to 72 degrees F.

Motion and sound sensors

Some audio/video monitors filter out "normal" sounds and motions. The receiver is supposed to turn on only when your baby makes an unusual motion or sound, such as crying or rolling over when he's waking up from a nap. This feature is designed to extend battery life, although the receiver should be docked for overnight monitoring to keep the battery charged. We haven't tested any models with this feature, so we don't know how well it works.

Sound and lights

With this common feature, the receiver's lights turn on when your baby makes a sound. The louder she cries, the brighter the lights will become, or with some models, the more lights will come on. This is helpful if the receiver is in a noisy room because you can turn the volume down and still know when your baby is crying.

Out-of-range indicator

This is a light or beeping sound that lets you know that you've reached the monitor's range limit. If you have a model without this feature, static might be the only indication that you're out of range. (A monitor's range can vary due to your home's size, its construction materials, and other factors.) The greater the range, the better--especially if you plan to take your monitor outside.

Low-battery indicator

Look for a monitor with a light or an icon on an LCD display that lets you know when the batteries in the receiver are running low.

An extra receiver

With two, you can keep one near your bed and carry the other around with you.

Expandability

Some monitors let you add up to four cameras, which is helpful if you have more than one child to monitor or want the system to cover more areas in your house, such as a nursery and a playroom. You can mount multiple units throughout the house.

Connectivity

Some audio/video monitors connect to VCR/DVD recorders or televisions so you can watch your baby on a bigger screen. If you have picture-in-picture, you can watch TV and your baby, too.

Volume control

This is an important feature, so check that it's easy to access. It shouldn't be part of a complicated menu you access by tabbing though a lot of screens. All the models we tested have volume control on the side.

Brands


Dropcam

This San Francisco-based company makes Internet cameras you use to watch your business, home, children, and pets. Available on the company’s website.
www.dropcam.com

Fisher-Price

Based in upstate New York since the 1930, Fisher-Price is a subsidiary of Mattel Inc. Among its array of juvenile products, it also offers a variety of baby monitors.  Available everywhere baby monitors are sold, and online.
www.fisher-price.com
 

Graco

In 1953, the company invented the world's first wind-up infant swing, the Graco Swyngomatic. Today. Graco makes a range of juvenile products. Available wherever baby monitors are sold and online.
www.gracobaby.com

MobiCam

Based in Culver City, Calif., this young company manufacturers such products as video baby monitors, a color-changing portable nightlight, and the Headphonies, which combines a designer style toy with the functionality of a portable speaker. See company website for purchasing information.
www.getmobi.com

Philips Avent

This company has evolved and grown over more than 100 years. Philips now manufactures parent and child products such as baby monitors, bottles and nipples, and personal care products, electronics, and other household items. Baby monitors are available at Radio Shack, Target, Walmart, Costco, and other retailers.
www.usa.philips.com
 

Safety 1st

A more than 25-year-old company based in Foxboro, Mass., Safety 1st is a division of Dorel Juvenile Products. In addition to baby monitors, the company manufactures baby travel gear, bathtubs, potty seats, booster seats, play gear, and other child care products. Available everywhere juvenile products are sold and online.
www.safety1st.com

Sony

Based in New York, N.Y., it is the U.S. subsidiary of Sony Corporation. Sony is a manufacturer of audio, video, communications, and information technology products for consumer and professional markets. The company’s baby monitor is available wherever baby monitors are sold and online.
www.sonystyle.com
 

The First Years

This company manufactures a complete line of childcare items, including breastfeeding products, strollers, car seats, and baby monitors. Available wherever juvenile products are sold and online.
www.thefirstyears.com

Shopping tips

Start by deciding whether you want an audio-only monitor or one that lets you see as well as hear your baby. Some parents are reassured by hearing and seeing every whimper and movement. Others find such close surveillance to be nerve-racking. Having a monitor should make life easier, not create a constant source of worry. You might find that you don't really need a monitor at all, especially if your home is small.

Consider digital over analog

Digital monitors encode their signals. As a result, you can be sure that the sounds and images transmitted are received only by you and not by neighbors who might have a similar model (or a cordless phone using the same frequency band).

Consider other wireless devices

While digital monitors minimize the possibility of unwittingly broadcasting images and sounds to other devices, any wireless device--analog or digital--can interfere with other wireless devices, such as your baby monitor, cordless phone, wireless speakers, or home wireless router. To solve the problem, first, try changing the channel on your baby monitor or on your router. If you still have interference and you can't return the monitor, try keeping other devices as far away from your baby monitor as possible.

Consider your home and lifestyle

Think about the size of your home and your daily routine when deciding which brand/model to buy. If you'll be making calls during nap time, for example, look for monitors with lights that let you know when your baby is awake. Of course you can accomplish the same thing by turning down the sound on a video monitor, but lights are more likely to catch your eye.

If you live in a large house, you might want a monitor with two receivers rather than one. In general, look for models with features that make it easy to move about, such as a compact receiver that clips to your belt or waistband. Try it on before buying, if possible.

Check out the return policy

Before buying or registering for a baby monitor (or any wireless product), be sure you can return or exchange it in case you can't get rid of interference or other problems. If you receive a monitor as a baby-shower gift and know where it was purchased, try it before the retailer's return period ends. Return policies are often explained on store receipts, on signs near registers, or on the merchant's website. But if the return clock has run out, don't feel defeated. Persistence and politeness will often get you an exception to the policy. Keep the receipt and the original packaging.

Safety

Kids and power cords: Keep them separate

The Consumer Product Safety Commission says at least seven children have died since 2002 in the U.S. after being strangled by monitor cords. Some of them were only 6 months old. The CPSC now requires that electrical cords on monitors be labeled with a reminder to mount the chord more than three feet away from the crib.

In early 2011, two infant strangulation deaths prompted a recall of nearly two million Summer Infant video monitors. The CPSC also reported that a 20-month-old boy was found in his crib with the camera cord wrapped around his neck. In that case, the Summer Infant monitor camera was mounted on a wall, but the child was still able to reach the cord. He was freed without serious injury.

You might be tempted to place a monitor in a crib or on the crib's rails in an attempt to get a clearer picture. But you should never put a monitor–even a cordless one that only picks up sound–in the crib or within reach of your baby

Monitors can't do everything

Baby monitors shouldn't be used as a substitute for adult supervision. They should be considered as an extra set of ears--and, in some cases, eyes--that help parents and caregivers keep tabs on sleeping babies. Using one can alert you to a situation before it becomes serious, for example, if your baby is coughing, crying, or making some other sign of distress. Experts warn that you can't rely on a monitor to prevent Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS).

You might see monitors on the market with claims that they can track a baby's breathing or movements, but unless the unit is registered with the FDA, it's not a medical device. Consumer Reports hasn't tested this type of monitor. Talk with your pediatrician if you think your child has a condition that warrants medical monitoring. He or she can give you advice on the best devices.

   

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