A baby 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.
Image and audio quality: We wanted a high enough resolution to make out facial features in the dark, at more than a few feet of distance, and (obviously) in daylight as well. The screen itself did not need to be incredibly high-resolution, but we wanted a size that would be easily visible on a nightstand. For all monitors, but especially audio-only options, we wanted to be able to hear everything clearly at the lowest volumes.
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.
In terms of bang for your buck, it’s tough to beat the Babysense. For less than $100, it comes loaded with bells and whistles more commonly found on higher priced models. Not only does it boast a 2.4-inch HD LCD color screen with infrared night vision, pan/tilt, and 2x zoom, but it includes two-way talk back, a sound activated ‘Eco’ mode (the screen stays off) to save battery life, 900 foot range (with out-of-range warning), and an in-room temperature monitor that sends alerts if it gets too hot or cold. It uses 2.4 GHz FHSS wireless transmission for security and even comes with both a built-in alarm/nap timer and lullabies.
Movement products are designed to sense the movement associated with a baby breathing. These products attempt to discern when your little one has not moved within a prescribed period that could indicate that they have potentially stopped breathing. While this may seem like a no-brainer option for parents worried about Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS), they are not foolproof, have not been approved by the FDA as a medical device, and are known to have false alarms where the baby is fine but then suddenly awakened by a loud alarm. While it is an interesting kind of product, we caution parents that this type of device is not a substitute for safe sleeping practices and doesn't prevent SIDS. However, if you are willing to accept false alarms, it can provide another layer of monitoring to help some parents sleep better at night. Movement sensing products are only useful until babies start to roll over, at which point they become unreliable.
To save on battery life, some audio/video models only turn on when the baby makes an unusual motion or sound. Some models come with a motion-detector pad that fits under the crib sheet. This type of motion sensor is intended to prevent SIDS. Sensitive enough to detect changes in breathing, an alarm sounds if there is no movement after 20 minutes. However, if the baby simply rolls off the pad, the alarm may sound.
Sound activation is a feature we think parents should consider. This feature creates a quiet monitor unless the baby is actively making noise and translates to parents potentially getting more sleep because they aren't kept awake by ambient noises. Having sound activation means you only hear what you want to. This feature can be found in dedicated and Wi-Fi monitors.
The features we focused on were those we thought either increased the performance of the monitor or made it more user-friendly for parents and increased the odds of getting good quality sleep. We looked for monitors that have sound activation that keeps the parent unit quiet when the baby isn't crying, so parents can potentially fall asleep faster because they don't have to listen to white noise. Some of the monitors were so loud, even at low volumes, that the white noise might keep light sleeping parents awake; this defeats the purpose of having a video product to begin with. We also liked the models with screens that automatically "wake" and/or go to sleep.
Wireless devices and dirty electricity are almost impossible to get away from in our current technological age, but it doesn't mean we can't take steps to limit the exposure to ourselves and our children. Even though the current evidence is somewhat conflicting, and shows we need more studies and research because the potential is there for harm, parents should make informed and thoughtful decisions regarding their children's exposure to potential health risks, especially given that their bodies are developing and more susceptible to this type of radiation. We can't say for certain that monitors pose a health risk, but we also can't say for certain that they don't. Given this information, we feel it is important to test and report on the EMF levels of each monitor so parents can decide for themselves which product fits in best with their goals and concerns.
It really depends on what you feel most comfortable with. There are audio monitors that allow you to listen to any noise coming from the nursery, vital monitors that track sleep and breathing and video monitors that add sight to sound. Babylist parents overwhelmingly choose video monitors. The security of seeing what your child is up to—like if they’ve gotten tangled in their swaddle, pulled their diaper off or climbed out of the crib—can be worth the extra cost of a video monitor.