Pretending to Sell SIDS Prevention

Readers — This is a wonderful and well-researched piece on Slate by Linda Rodriguez McRobbie, who seems to have written articles on everything that interests and outrages me, including Satanic panic  (a FANTASTIC and oh-so-disturbing story), and how junk science can put innocent people behind bars for a very long time. But this time she’s writing about high-tech baby monitors like the Mimo and Owlet, sold to parents as essential for peace of mind:

If only mom had an iron lung to attach me to, then she could be SURE I'm breathing!

If only mom had an iron lung to attach me to, then she could be SURE I’m breathing!

Linda writes:

[The American Academy of Pediatricians advises] “Avoid commercial devices marketed to reduce the risk of SIDS. … There is no evidence that these devices reduce the risk of SIDS or suffocation or that they are safe.” And: “Do not use home cardiorespiratory monitors as a strategy to reduce the risk of SIDS. … They might be of value for selected infants but should not be used routinely.” (In fact, there’s some evidence that they might not be safe: In November, monitor behemoth Angelcare voluntarily recalled 600,000 under-mattress sensor pads after two infants died of strangulation when the cord attached to the pad wrapped around their necks.)

The point is clear: Infant monitors, even the newest generation of smartphone-friendly wearable tech, do not reduce the risk of SIDS. And while the creators of devices like Mimo agree, Dr. Claire McCarthy, a pediatrician at Boston Children’s Hospital and a professor of pediatrics at Harvard Medical School, calls Mimo’s claim that it is not presenting its device as SIDS protection “disingenuous”…

Lenore here: Disingenuous is a nice word for “Hucksterism.” Not only can’t these devices prevent SIDS, they actually spread EXCESS worry by making it seem like a sleeping baby is in danger every single second. No wonder parents are so crazed with fear. NOTHING — not even a baby in a crib — is safe enough for us to let our guard down a sec.

And so begins the great parent freak-out, brought to us  by the endlessly inventive and seemingly recession-proof Child Safety-Industrial Complex.

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24 Responses to Pretending to Sell SIDS Prevention

  1. Jessie March 10, 2014 at 12:53 am #

    I usually agree with your posts, but in this case I disagree. I walked into my son’s room when he was 2 months old to check on him sleeping, and to this day I believe he was not breathing. Babies have shallow breathing and periods where they don’t take a breath for awhile, and that’s normal, but I had to lift him up, bounce him a bit, call his name loudly, and partially undress him in an effort to rouse him before I saw him take a breath. It was horrifying.

    Maybe I’m wrong, but after an experience like that, I couldn’t do nothing. I never imagined I would buy a device like this before this event, but afterwards I bought a Snuza, which clips to the waistband of a diaper underneath the baby’s clothing, and it beeps if it stops sensing the motion of the chest rising. I never regretted that purchase. Maybe it doesn’t reduce SIDS, but we already followed every safe sleep practice, and I felt I had to do more. It didn’t cause me to be anxious; it actually eased my fears because I tested it out and felt it was very sensitive and would go off if needed. For me, it felt empowering and like I was doing something concrete for my son. I also didn’t think it was unsafe–it was worn underneath a onesie and a sleep sack, so he never pull if off, and even if he did, it was large enough not to be a choking hazard. We used it until he could roll over.

    I think doctors are rightfully concerned that someone will hook a device to their child and then leave them in an unsafe sleep situation, believing the alarm will go off if something happens. It’s a legitimate worry. No one should do that. But just because someone might misuse a product doesn’t mean it’s harmful. Just because the government hasn’t proven something works doesn’t mean it doesn’t. You can’t group the devices with cords that strangled two babies (and which I agree are not safe to use) in with the wireless devices and claim they’re all bad–how is that any different from other articles you’ve posted about ridiculous recalls?

  2. Maggie March 10, 2014 at 9:56 am #

    Jessie, you may have missed this part from The American Academy of Pediatricians:

    “Do not use home cardiorespiratory monitors as a strategy to reduce the risk of SIDS. … They might be of value for selected infants but should not be used routinely.”

    What did your pediatrician say after that incident? If your pediatrician suggested you use it, your son would be one of the “select infants” who needed it. Once you started using it, did the Sunza go off and alert you to other instances when he was not breathing?

    I had a friend whose baby regularly stopped breathing, and yes, used a monitor. The first time it happened, the baby turned blue and needed CPR to get her to breath again. The monitor was prescribed by her doctor and the baby wore it 24 hours a day for months. It went off a couple of times a week for the first few months, and then tapered off.

    What I’m reading is some babies may need this. Most don’t. Anymore than they need diapers that check their urine constantly.

  3. SKL March 10, 2014 at 10:26 am #

    I still say that all this “I can prevent SIDS if I do xyz” is a reason behind a lot of developmental problems today’s kids have. Unless the baby has risk factors, let her SLEEP. All this forced back sleeping, gadget attaching, blanket/softie removing etc. is robbing babies of one of the things they need most: sleep. And it’s robbing parents of sleep, too. I don’t think I need to list all the safety, health, and quality of life issues this creates.

    What I’d like to know is, how did they convince Americans that their child is LIKELY to die if they don’t do a hundred things. In my extended family, we know of ONE baby who died in bed. That happened because his drunk father rolled over on top of him. SIDS exists but it is extremely rare. The hype never ceases to amaze me.

  4. SKL March 10, 2014 at 10:45 am #

    Oh, and why hasn’t the deaths of babies strangled by the “safety” device been publicized? Why are safety device mishaps never publicized?

    How does the death rate of the recalled Angel device compare to the rate of SIDS? I mean, that device hasn’t even existed very long, certainly not very many babies have spent many nights sleeping on it, and yet it killed at least 3 babies before it was recalled?

    What measures are out there to deter people from selling safety products that are unsafe? It seems they should have an extra penalty considering that they are selling both a product and a false sense of security.

  5. Havva March 10, 2014 at 10:48 am #

    @ Jessie: When my daughter was about the same age I woke at 2am to a horrendous gurgling noise that abruptly strangled to silence. I prodded her to no response. And though she always woke when picked up. I picked her up and she flopped limp in my arms like a rag doll. It took five back blows as hard as I dared, with her held up-side-down before she at long last coughed out some mucous, gasped for air, and finally let out the most blessed scream of her life. One more blow and I would have dialed 911.

    I spent the next year neurotic about everything and it drown out any joy parenting had to offer. Always at the top of the heap of fear was SIDS. One thing I discovered in that time was that at 365 days old a child dying in her sleep quits being SIDS. I don’t remember the name of it even, I suspect no one here knows right off. Because at 365 days old it quits being a CAUSE and becomes a private tragedy, a medical event. The abrupt change in name isn’t indicative of an abrupt change of rate, either. The rate for a 1 year old in any given month, isn’t that different than the rate for kids over 9 months old. (90% of SIDS cases are in the first 6 months)

    And so for me the most freeing thing, wasn’t a monitor, but coming to grips with the fact that I could never eliminate the risk of death. I determined to leave thinking of that horror to deal with ONLY if I have the misfortune of loosing a child. That serenity freed me in all aspects of my parenting.

    So while I will never forget that terrifying night. I do agree with Lenore. It is cruel to sell fear to parents. These devices wouldn’t exist if we weren’t selling fear to people who never had to resuscitate a baby, and amplifying the fears for those of us who have. And with no proof that any of them work. Why should parents who never knew our horror concern themselves with rare horror stories?

    I think most new moms would read our stories with an air of… “That could happen to my baby! What if I miss the critical moment?! What horrible danger babies are in!” But it would probably be better if they though what one would think of a teen dying in their sleep, or a parent resuscitating a teen in the dead of nite. “What awful bad luck, how frightening for them!”

  6. anonymous mom March 10, 2014 at 11:56 am #

    @SKL, I’m with you, completely. My first child was a horrible sleeper, so with my second, I was already nervous about another 2+ years of terrible nights. I noticed, early on, that she’d be a fussy, difficult sleeper when she was forced to sleep on her back, but if I let her sleep on her tummy, she’d snooze happily for hours. After a lot of research, I decided to just let her sleep on her tummy. The big piece of research that impacted me was the findings about poor sleep and later developmental problems. My oldest has a lot of ADHD-like issues that have been correlated with poor sleep. I do think that we’d see fewer developmental and behavioral issues if we didn’t sacrifice sleep for safety, as if sleep deprivation and poor sleep habits were somehow healthy.

    With my second and later kids, I used whatever safe sleep strategies did not interfere with them actually sleeping. Because, the idea is safe *sleep*, not “safe lying in their crib fussing and crying for hours.” If a “safe sleep” strategy led to my child waking frequently or sleeping poorly, I didn’t continue it. There were others I could employ that didn’t interfere with their sleep. And the big one for my two younger kids was tummy sleeping. They were extremely content tummy sleepers, which, if the many moms I know who will guiltily confess to letting their babies sleep on their stomachs because it is the *only* way they can get them to sleep for more than 15 minutes at a time are at all representative, I think many kids are.

    I don’t know. I respect people’s feelings about back sleeping, but I’m not sure the trade-off is worth it. I think the biggest positive change we’ve made, by far, in reducing SIDS rates is people not smoking in their homes. That posed a significant danger to children and obviously a smoke-filled home is not going to lead to better sleeping habits. But many kids develop a pattern of restless, fitful, interrupted sleep when they sleep on their backs, and I’m not sure it’s just patently obvious that the downsides of that are outweighed by the small reduction in SIDS risk in an otherwise low-risk child in a low-risk home. Personally, especially after the horrible experience I had with my first child and sleep, as soon as my babies have enough strength to lift their heads and move it from side to side when on their tummies, I’m comfortable letting them sleep on their stomachs. I do check them somewhat frequently, but I’d rather be up to do a quick check on a sleeping baby than up every 30 minutes with a child who is unable to experience a sound sleep.

  7. Matthew March 10, 2014 at 12:07 pm #

    I don’t think it’s fair to say the monitoring products aren’t safe, despite the recall. Just like every parent should know not to put the crib under a window with a draw string, or a corded monitor within reach, checking to make sure that it couldn’t be pulled in was the real failure. 2 zip ties and the issure is fixed. Irrational fear of products instead of rational risk assessment isn’t great either. Nearly every baby product recall I’ve seen has been operator error.

    As far as monitoring devices not preventing SIDs, that’s not the correct question. The correct question is “Does having a breathing monitoring device reduce response times or improve outcomes to an event?”. The study referenced by the AAP is over 11 years old, so newer tech isn’t included.

    In addition, the logistics of doing a study are problematic, since it relies on unpredictable events occuring to get data, and there are a myriad confounding variables. The studies cited pretty much just show doing a study on this is really hard, as opposed to anything concrete.

    One of the things I liked about her research is that she focused on passive measures. Back sleeping, no bumpers, etc. The original AAP and CDC recommendations have more.

    But, if concerns exist, like having had an event, or other risk factors exist like underweight, premature, of smokers in the house, doing like Jessie did, even if not under doc’s orders, and evaluating if it’s a choking hazard, etc, then making an informed decision is not unreasonable or being ruled by fear. It also needs to be combined with infant first aid training.

  8. Donna March 10, 2014 at 12:25 pm #

    My baby was a belly sleeper. I looked at the same risk analysis as free ranging – an extremely low risk of SIDS vs a 100% certainly of sleep deprivation for both me and my child. If your baby sleeps well on his/her back, you should certainly put them to sleep that way. Otherwise, I really don’t understand the vehemence that everyone sticks to it despite the entire family being miserable.

  9. Warren March 10, 2014 at 12:35 pm #

    The parents in my family only ever had one real fear when they put a baby to bed.
    That someone would do something that would prematurely wake the baby, depriving us of sleep or quiet time.

    Nobody worried about SIDS. There were far more important and immediate issues to deal with, like housework, other kids, work, and sleep.

  10. Backroads March 10, 2014 at 12:56 pm #

    My baby is almost a year. I don’t think I ever had a pure terror of SIDS, but for that first month the husband and I were always checking to make sure she was breathing–I understand this to be fairly normal newborn parent behavior. As I can still count on one hand the number of times she has slept through the night, SIDS decreased in its worrisome factor. However, after a couple of recent SIDS deaths in my state (out of a whole lot of babies) I once again find myself worrying about it. Nothing crazy, mind you, but buying one of these gadgets would no doubt increase the paranaoia.

  11. anonymous this time March 10, 2014 at 1:09 pm #

    “And so for me the most freeing thing, wasn’t a monitor, but coming to grips with the fact that I could never eliminate the risk of death.”

    This, dear friends, is what I think of as acceptance. It is a spiritual practice, and it is the only way to real peace. And you can’t package it up and put a price on it, either.

  12. C.J. March 10, 2014 at 3:06 pm #

    My oldest daughter was born the same day as my nephew. My nephew died in his sleep 2 days later. Being a new mother and seeing my little nephew in a casket the day I came home from the hospital was horrible. My mother went out and bought an angel care monitor. It goes under the crib mattress and alarms if baby stops breathing. I loved that thing, I don’t think I would have slept without it. Devices won’t prevent SIDS and too many of them can cause paranoia but I’m really glad I had that monitor. My nephew didn’t die from classic SIDS, we will never know what killed him.

  13. brian March 10, 2014 at 3:06 pm #

    My wife and I still laugh about how panicked we were the first time our son slept through the night. We woke up at like 3am and said “oh my god is he ok??” My wife actually risked waking him up to crack open the door and peek in. Silly new parents.

    Monitors for sound are bad enough, I can’t imagine how much more stress i would feel if i had alarms going off every time the newborn hiccuped.

  14. C.J. March 10, 2014 at 3:06 pm #

    My oldest daughter was born the same day as my nephew. My nephew died in his sleep 2 days later. Being a new mother and seeing my little nephew in a casket the day I came home from the hospital was horrible. My mother went out and bought an angel care monitor. It goes under the crib mattress and alarms if baby stops breathing. I loved that thing, I don’t think I would have slept without it. Devices won’t prevent SIDS and too many of them can cause paranoia but I’m really glad I had that monitor. My nephew didn’t die from classic SIDS, we will never know what killed him.

  15. lollipoplover March 10, 2014 at 3:19 pm #

    The baby picture is just the cutest baby ever with those chunky thighs- oh my, I’m getting baby fever!
    I had babies that looked like this- not usually the ones that would need these *extra* precautions. That’s usually the preemie babies that look like small, injured birds.
    My best parenting purchase was the moses basket I could bring around the house. And dogs. They are great monitors.

    I wish I could go back in time to tell the first-time momself to sleep more and worry less and use the CTFD parenting method.

  16. Papilio March 10, 2014 at 3:48 pm #

    I just found out that my country scores (among?) the lowest SIDS rate of the world??!!
    No idea what these parents here do with their babies…

  17. Jeff March 10, 2014 at 3:58 pm #

    Regarding the anglecare monitor recall, I also agree that it was very likely a user error, not a failure of the system. Many recalls are due to misue and it’s unfortunate products are tarnished with a ‘recall’.
    We used the coreded pad and had it secured properly and out of reach. When baby was old enough to move around in crib she was old enough not to worry about breathing.
    The monitor did go off occasionally, but we expteced false alarms and did not overreact.
    I imagine the deaths were the result of leaving the cords under the mattress to long where a child was capable enough to grab them and/or they were not routed/secured properly.
    The angle care monitor was a great peace of mind for us.

  18. anonymous mom March 10, 2014 at 5:57 pm #

    @Hawa, I had bleeding at the start of my first pregnancy, and I became so paranoid that I actually rented a fetal monitor so I could make sure my baby hadn’t died. Before he was even born. Thankfully, I chilled out a lot in his first few years. There really is something very freeing about just coming to terms with the fact that you cannot prevent every tragedy, and that life doesn’t have guarantees.

  19. bmommyx2 March 10, 2014 at 10:16 pm #

    While I am not a fan of these devices I see two sides to them. One that brings peace of mind to the parents (for a lot of money) & the other is the company making money & praying off of their fears. I think it’s the medical community that puts the fear of SIDS into all new parents. My hubby & I used to just stare at my boys when they were babies to make sure they were breathing. Sometimes we couldn’t tell & one of us would rest out hand on their chest only to wake them. A friend used a mirror to check for breathing. While I feel like SIDS is a horrible tragedy I don’t think it’s as common as we are made to feel it is. Sometimes my son wouldn’t sleep & I had to put him on his tummy. We did lots of other things you are not supposed to do. Sometimes you just need to have common sense. I think there are other causes of SIDS that are not explored, but that discussion if for another column.

  20. EricS March 10, 2014 at 11:07 pm #

    If I didn’t have a conscience, I’d make a killing off of so many people. I’d be rich! Just invent something that will give people a false sense of security, and hope. lol Gotta love marketing. (insert sarcasm).

  21. EricS March 10, 2014 at 11:16 pm #

    @Jesse: I’m curious, has the “safety” device ever gone off. ie. your child stopped breathing again?

    This is what marketing does, it manipulates people based on their fears. How ever large it may be, just as long as they make people believe it ONCE, they have done their job. Especially in today’s society, it’s very easy to convince people to buy a “refrigerator in the arctic”, so to speak.

    That will make you leaner without all the diet and exercise (if your weight conscious), that will help you get more dates (if your insecure), that will save you money (if you trying to save, but in reality in the long run those save money schemes ends up costing you more), that will keep your children safe (no caption required for this). For many, that is all they need to hear to get suckered in.

    People have become so engrossed in technology, they stopped thinking for themselves. We all know this to be true. Just look how much less common sense is used these days by many. They no longer pay attention, they believe anything and everything they hear and read online, and when things don’t turn out the way they expect, they freak out. Not saying this is you. But when fear enters into people’s minds, no matter how rare, and how serious, it changes their perspective for the worse. And they never stop to think twice about it.

  22. JaneW March 11, 2014 at 8:49 am #

    You know, during the (thankfully brief) period that my son was in the NICU, I loved watching those monitors. Since he wasn’t there for breathing issues, they displayed lovely lovely numbers, and with a sick newborn, it calmed me down a lot. BUT, the alarm still went off all the time! Every time someone picked him up, it disturbed the sensors enough to set it off. Sometimes he managed to do it himself thrashing around.

    I wonder how many false alarms these devices produce, especially on an extra-wiggly baby like mine.

  23. Natalie March 12, 2014 at 12:57 pm #

    I think part of it has to do with the parenting books. From a webizine I like to frequent, the owner had his first kid, and then made a hilarious post about parenting tips – first one is about SIDS, and then it crops up afterwards:

    So, I offer for new parents these 30 Practical Parenting Tips You Will Never Learn from Movies and Television.

    1. They never really discuss in movies the single most terrifying thing about raising a newborn: SIDs. Before you’re a parent, it seems ethereal, but during the first six month of your infant’s life, it’s like this all encompassing obsession. Nobody knows why it happens, but that doesn’t stop doctors from attributing it to about 4,000 different factors, all of which become insanely terrifying. The reason why parents don’t sleep the first six months of a child’s life is because they’re waking up EVERY 15 MINUTES to make sure their baby is still alive because the medical profession has put the fear of God in us. YOUR BABY COULD DIE FOR NO REASON. However, if the baby sleeps on its back, its risk for SIDs is halved for some reason. The rate of SIDs also increase in babies who sleep in their parents’ bed, which is why I think that SIDs is a vast conspiracy perpetuated by the crib industry.

    2. What to Expect Books are the worst. Every new parent will have a copy of What to Expect In Your First Year. You may have five copies, because every one will want to buy you one. Why? To scare you to death. Basically, they’re reference books. If your child gets a small rash, you go to the book to find out what it is. The book will say something along the lines of, “Your baby may be teetering on the edge of death. Consult your doctor immediately before it’s too late. If you don’t, your BABY WILL DIE. Or it could just be a small rash, so don’t worry about it. It’s definitely one or the other or something else all together.”


    12. Nursing mothers: You’re doing God’s work. Bless you. Try not to stress about it. You may be freaked out that you’re not producing enough breastmilk to keep your baby alive. That stress will cause you to produce less milk, which will cause you to stress out even more, which is an endless cycle that will end in the manual removal of every single hair follicle in your head. Don’t worry about it. Your baby will not die from starvation. IT WILL DIE OF SIDs.

  24. B. Durbin March 17, 2014 at 11:33 pm #

    I actually do have a friend whose baby died of SIDS—he did not have the risk factors, and seemed healthy right up until his death. They’re now finding (from the small sample size they have of babies whose parents allowed an autopsy) that there might be minor chemical brainstem issues with babies that die from SIDS—nothing major, just something that makes it less likely that they’ll move if there’s a buildup of CO2 around their face.

    At any rate, we may well get a monitor for our next child, not because we have a fear of SIDS but because my husband has a hard time sleeping if he can’t hear the baby breathing, and just the knowledge that there’s an alarm will help him get better rest. It’s probably related to the worry that you won’t wake up in time for an early appointment, so you set an alarm to make sure you will.