In the past, not all parents considered monitors a necessity, but with houses getting larger and lives getting more hectic it almost feels like a must have item. When you consider the peace of mind knowing your baby is sleeping soundly, and the potential increase in sleep for parents, it is hard not to add some kind of monitor to your list of baby items to buy. With prices being relatively low for sound products, it is possible to find a great monitor, even for parents on a tight budget.
Buying a monitor for baby can be a complex operation due to the large number of products available. It is especially complicated for the first-time parent since it isn't obvious what to look for in terms of features and pitfalls to avoid. In this article and our corresponding review of baby monitors, we will share what we learned about choosing the right product for your needs. We also suggest you review our article on The Best Video Monitor for more information on all things monitor and if a video product might suit your needs better.
The photos above show the Philips Avent DECT SCD501/10 (audio monitor) and the LeFun C2 720P Wi-Fi (video monitor). These two products have similar price tags that might have you reconsidering what type of monitor you really want.
Price is one of the clear differences between all the monitors on the market with monitors ranging from $40 to $150 list. Including the digital monitors, such as the VTech DM221 which won an Editors' Choice award, are very budget-friendly and work well.
Range is another main consideration when choosing a monitor. Disturbingly, we found no correlation between manufacturers' claims regarding a monitor's range, with what we observed in our extensive hands-on testing. You would expect a monitor advertising 2,000 foot range would work at a longer distance than one advertising 820 foot range — sadly this did not turn out to be true in our tests. We advise you review manufacturer's range claims with great skepticism, and feel the tests we performed on each monitor, which provide an apples-to-apples comparison, are much more reliable than manufacturer's claims.
In this article, we'll walk you through the different types of monitors and explain what features you should look for and why.
Which Type of Baby Monitor? Video? Sound? Movement?
We consider the essential benefit of a baby monitor to be longer and better sleep for parents, by gaining confidence that the monitor will wake you if baby needs attention. We have reviewed three different categories of monitors here at BabyGearLab:
- Sound Monitor Review
- Video Monitor Review
- Movement Monitor Review
While any of the three types of monitors can help you keep tabs on your baby, the key component that parents rely on while sleeping is sound.
Why Sound Monitoring Is the Most Important
In practical use, it is the sound capability of the monitor that you'll most rely on. Sound prompts you to wake and listen for further details. Without sound any kind of monitor will be virtually useless for sleeping parents. Being able to see what baby is up to, or knowing when baby stops moving as predicted are definitely nice perks to consider, but the first thing you should think about is sound.
A newborn will typically cry to alert you to their need to nurse or diaper change every 2-3 hours, providing you with a brief window to sleep in between. As baby gets older the time period will increase, and by 6 months you might enjoy 4-6 hour periods of sleep between cries.
The more confident you are in your monitor's ability to wake you if baby needs attention, the better you'll sleep. This is especially important for first-time parents who tend to be more anxious, and thus more sleep deprived than the veterans. Even if the monitor offers video, it is still the sound that will make or break how well it works (and in our review of Video monitors, we base much of the overall rating score on sound capabilities).
Therefore, we recommend that you emphasize sound capabilities in your purchase decision. Both of our Editors' Choice options, the Vtech DM221 and the Philips Avent DECT SCD570/10, earned perfect 10s for sound clarity.
How Video Monitors Can Get You More Sleep
Video plays no role in the essential act of alerting you to baby's crying, so to address this issue video monitors usually include sound as well. The sound wakes you and the video gives you more details on what is really happening in baby's crib.
Video can play a key role in helping you determine whether to make an immediate trip to check on the baby. Sometimes your baby just wakes up briefly and then self-soothes back to sleep. The ability to look in on baby and see what is going on in the crib can be very helpful in determining that nothing serious is happening. With a sound-only monitor, you need to listen for clues or open the door to the nursery room (which will often fully awaken your baby). For this reason, we love the ability of a video monitor, such as the Top Pick for WiFi monitors, the Nest Cam WiFi video monitor.
A video monitor is also useful if you have multiple children and want to keep an eye on two areas at the same time. When your baby is older, a video monitor can be used to watch kids playing while you do chores in another room.
Last, but not least, some of the video monitors offer the ability to transmit over wifi, such as the Nest Cam, which allow you to view your baby on your iPhone, iPad, Android, or desktop computer. The ability to see your baby from work, or keep an eye your baby when they are with a caregiver, is a compelling feature.
For the full scoop on video monitors, take a look at The Best Video Monitor Review and its companion article How to Choose the Best Video Monitor.
Why Movement Monitors Are Controversial, Yet Might Save Lives
A new parent can't help but contemplate the worst case scenarios; what if baby stops breathing? Some monitors go beyond sound and video and attempt to alert you in the unlikely event that baby stops moving. The Angelcare AC701 is one such monitor. This monitor has a movement sensing pad you place under the crib mattress. The detection pad is sensitive enough to notice the small movements a baby normally makes when sleeping. If the movement stops, the Angelcare sounds an alarm after a 20 second delay. Getting the pad to work properly requires testing, tuning the sensitivity so that erroneous vibration such as from your heating or AC don't fool the monitor, and installation of a firm board under the mattress.
The idea of an alarm that will sound if baby stops breathing is particularly interesting to parents in the first 6 month period where the risk of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS) and other sleep-related death causes are most significant.
So, what's the controversy?
There appears to be no scientific study available that validates that monitors such as the Angelcare actually reduce the risk of SIDS or sleep-related infant death. These are not medical-grade monitors and their effectiveness is questionable.
Moreover, both the American Academy of Pediatrics and the National Institute of Health have come out with formal policy statements recommending that parents do not buy products that claim to reduce the risk of SIDS, citing the lack of data to indicate that such products work.
In contrast, there is a published set of techniques advocated by AAP and NIH that have been proven to reduce the risk of SIDS and sleep-related death. It would be a grave mistake to ignore these proven techniques to reduce the risk of SIDS and sleep-related death, because you had false confidence in your monitor.
Not much, at least not in their documentation or website.
Angelcare seems to ignore the obvious question about their product's benefits or effectiveness. In our examination of their product packaging, marketing materials, and the FAQ section of their website, we found no mention of SIDS or sleep-related death. They do not claim their product will alarm if your baby stops breathing. In fact, as far as we can tell they fail to make any benefit claim regarding their movement monitors other than to claim that the monitor will alarm if no movement is detected and that their monitors offer "peace of mind" to parents.
In the end, Angelcare leaves the question of whether their movement detection feature might save a baby's life largely unanswered.
In the favor of Angelcare's products, are a handful of passionate and compelling testimonials in user-reviews that describe cases where the Angelcare movement monitor did alarm in situations where baby had stopped breathing. In those cases, the alarm allowed the parents to revive their baby, and the monitor appears to have been instrumental in saving those babies' lives. Critics say that those cases were probably not SIDS as formally defined medically, but rather a case where baby stopped breathing from asphyxiation or other sleep-related causes. From our point of view, we don't feel the semantics matter. The Angelcare alarm appeared to have worked in those cases to save lives, and we think that is significant and hard to ignore.
Our take on it has been to evaluate the Angelcare product's primarily on their sound monitor capabilities and other features, and to simply consider the movement detection feature as an added bonus — albeit one we like, as it seems to be one more thing that might help alert parents to a potentially dangerous situation.
One Parent Unit or Two?
Many parents get by using just one monitor, placing the power supply in their bedroom (the main location you'll use your monitor) and taking the parent unit with them to the kitchen and other rooms in the house. This works just fine and is only a minor hassle as long as you're monitor's battery life is sufficient. But before the time your baby is a year old you'll probably find that the battery life on the rechargeable parent unit has degraded to a fraction of it's initial longevity. You can solve this by replacing the rechargeable batteries or by simply moving the power supply around with you.
Or, just get a two parent unit product and you'll eliminate a lot of that hassle. Some of the units we tested are available with additional parent units. If that feels like something you are interested in you'll want to double check that option prior to purchase.
The most convenient way to use a baby monitor is to have a two-parent unit model so you aren't constantly having to move the parent unit from one location to another. Dedicate one parent unit in the master bedroom and plug it into the wall. You generally won't be moving the unit that is in the master bedroom. Place the other parent unit in the kitchen or living area where you'll be while the baby is sleeping in the day. You will often move this 2nd monitor around as you move from the kitchen to another room to work or watch TV, etc. Place the power supply for the 2nd monitor wherever you'll use it most (the kitchen usually), and use it on batteries when in the other room(s).
However, some of the monitors, such as the Philips Avent SCD570, and the video monitors often do not have a 2nd parent unit available (video monitors often have the option of a second camera, but not typically a 2nd parent unit unless they are Wi-Fi). As a result, you'll be forced to run these monitors on batteries or drag around the power supply when you are out of your master bedroom.
Range, Clarity, and Interference
Range, clarity, and interference are all interrelated. A monitor that offers good range can be brought to its knees by interference from another monitor or electronic device on the same frequency. Similarly, the clarity of sound deteriorates as you increase the distance. That said, there are substantial differences between devices.
Most manufacturers state a "range" for their monitor in their marketing materials and on their packaging. The stated range will be a so-called "open field" range test performed where there are no obstructions between the baby unit and the parent unit. These "open field" range specifications are very misleading for several reasons. First, you aren't going to use your monitor in an open field, you'll use it indoors with walls between you and baby. Who cares if the monitor can allegedly transmit 1,000 feet across an open field? Second, we found no correlation between the stated ranges from manufacturers and what we measured in our own extensive range tests. Third, we found surprisingly little correlation between even our own "open field" range tests and our "indoor" range tests; a monitor that went twice as far as another in open field tests doesn't necessarily offer better performance indoors.
Bottom line: don't trust the manufacturer's range distances. They are flat out misleading and useless.
Your actual range at home is what matters and that is going to be very different than the manufacturer's stated range in any event. Inside your home where it really counts, the range is going to be anywhere from 5 to 30 times less than the open field range. In addition, each home is a bit different because your home's walls and wiring will present unique obstructions that interfere with the monitor's ability to receive a clear signal. Further, each monitor is different and some are much better at getting a clear signal through multiple walls and distance than others.
So, how can you get a grip on the real range you can expect from a monitor?
We concluded that the only way we could find out was to perform our own tests, both indoor and open field. The Angelcare AC401 earned the highest score for the range in our tests working up to 160 feet and through 9 walls. However, it didn't do the best in the remainder of our testing metrics. The majority of monitors in our tests worked for an average of 90 feet and 5 walls, which is probably good enough for most homes.
Since our tests were done in a consistent manner (same location, same obstructions) across all the monitors we tested, we recommend you look closely at our test results to compare and contrast monitors to get a feeling for relative range performance. We also advise that you focus primarily on our Indoor Range Test results since the open field range numbers are less predictive of what you'll find in your home (unless your plan is to leave your baby in a field, which we don't recommend).
The clarity of a monitor refers to how clear the sound comes through from baby's room, or in the case of a video monitor, the video image quality as well as the sound quality.
It is not absolutely critical that you hear everything in baby's room crystal clear; as long as you can hear baby cry, you've covered the basic functional need. However, it sure is a nice benefit if you actually can hear everything clearly, and given two monitors that are otherwise identical in performance, we'll take the one with better sound clarity every time (or possibly pay a bit more to get it).
The downside of clarity is when a static hiss is overwhelming the sound of baby's room. That kind of background noise can drive you nuts, and if the monitor lacks a sound activation feature to turn it off or a mic adjustment to filter it out, it's going to wreak havoc on your ability to sleep, which negates the whole reason of getting a monitor to being with.
We developed our clarity ratings by testing monitors in the room next door to the baby units, using an iPod sound loop so that all monitors were tested under identical conditions. The Philips Avent SCD570/10 and the Vtech DM221 earned the highest score for clarity with 10 out of 10 in our tests.
Monitors suffer from two primary types of signal interference. One is the degradation of sound quality as the distance and number of walls is increased. As distance and number of walls are increased, the signal gets weaker and more static/white noise is evident. The other common source of interference from other radio frequency devices such as other baby monitors (perhaps a neighbor's monitor) and/or wireless telephones. Most of the monitors in our review did better with interference than those we tested in previous monitor reviews, indicating that quality and/or technology changes have resulted in improvements to this kind of product across the board.
Save Your Receipt and Return Any Monitor with Interference Issues
Range and sound quality issues are significant enough that we encourage you to buy your monitor only from a retailer that allows you to return the product for exchange or refund in the event you have a problem.
Our advice is this:
- Buy products only from a retailer with a liberal return policy; save your receipt
- Carefully unpack the monitor so it can be returned without difficulty
- Immediately test it in your home to make sure there are no issues that limit or impede performance
- Try it in all the areas you'll use the monitor most (typically your master bedroom, living room, and kitchen areas), and turn on all your wireless phones, Wi-Fi network, and other devices that might interfere
- Keep in mind that interference may also come from a neighbor's home (test it at night when other baby monitors in the neighborhood will be turned on)
- If interference or range is an issue in your home, immediately return the monitor. It's not something you'll be able to fix, and it's not worth the loss of sleep you'll incur suffering through an interference issue. The sooner you return it the better
Sound Activated Monitoring with Adjustable Sensitivity
We think you'll appreciate a monitor that offers a sound activation feature and/or microphone sensitivity adjustment, and we highly recommend it.
The best monitors offer the ability to filter out background noise and are tuned to the specific sound frequencies of a baby crying. While baby is silently sleeping, the best monitors offer the ability to filter the background noise and hiss that might otherwise occur and become totally silent. Yet, when baby cries out, the monitor tunes-in immediately and even amplifies the sound so you wake up and can check on baby. Silent until activated can increase your ability to sleep or the longevity of your sleep.
Different monitors describe this feature with different words, but they all refer to the same thing: microphone sensitivity, background noise filter, sound sensitivity, sound-activated, or voice-activation (VOX).
To a first time parent this feature may not seem important, but it can play a key role in allowing you to sleep better. Why? Because most parents will want the monitor set to relatively loud volume to assure they hear it (and wake up) when baby cries. With the monitor volume turned up loud, you'll invariably hear a background hiss that sounds like a radio tuned between stations combined with whatever subtle sounds exist in baby's room. This background noise can be very annoying and prevent you from getting needed sleep. With the sound activated feature enabled, that same background hiss is reduced to absolute silence which can help you fall asleep. Yet when baby cries, or a significant noise occurs in the room, the monitor kicks in and you immediately can hear everything going on in the room.
A critical feature from our point of view is the ability to easily turn sound activation off from the parent unit so you can briefly hear everything in baby's room, make sure the monitor is working properly, and get the monitor volume adjusted correctly. Then you can turn the sensitivity filter on so you can get some sleep.
The higher end monitors, like the Philips Avent DECT SCD570/10, give you adjustable control over the sound activation's sensitivity from the parent unit. This can be very helpful in practice to allow you to adjust so as to barely tune out background noises, yet assure that the slightest sound above the background level comes through on the monitor. However, any sound activation or mic sensitivity adjustment is better than none.
Battery Life - Does it Really Matter?
Battery life is not a major consideration, not really. Almost all the monitors we reviewed offer rechargeable parent units with battery life over seven hours, with some running for a significantly longer time period of over 20 hours. So even if the lowest-cost monitor offered the best battery life, you won't see us recommending them because of it. However, we do think you should think twice about parent units that are not rechargeable, like the Philips Avent SCD501/10 which has a battery life of 19 hours, but uses AA batteries you will need to replace frequently. Or the Angelcare options that both require AA batteries you will need to replace once their lifespan is shot, which is about 20-20 hours depending on which option you choose.
Battery life comes into play as you temporarily move the monitor away from its normal location (typically the master bedroom). This comes up all the time if you only have a single parent unit, as you'll want to have the monitor with you in the kitchen, office, and living room while baby sleeps. Relocating the power supply every time you move from one room to another is a hassle. However, with the majority of the products in our review staying charged well over 10 hours, we don't think many parents will struggle with battery life as long as they get the parent unit back to its charging cradle before bedtime.
In general, we found the video monitors offer poor battery life compared to sound or sound/movement monitors, which means you'll be relocating the power supply along with the monitor more often. Also, keep in mind that battery life degrades after use. By the time your baby is a year old, your monitor's battery life will be a fraction of what it was when new. We recommend that you replace the batteries with new rechargeable batteries if battery life degrades significantly. All of our award winners batteries lasted over 13 hours; ample time for just about any purpose.
Risk of Strangulation
A primary safety consideration with any monitor for baby is making sure the cord(s) can't be reached by baby. The power cord, and any other cords (such as the movement sensor cord on Angelcare AC401), should be secured well out of reach of the baby. Angelcare offers a video on this topic.
While a newborn infant initially lacks the mobility to reach through a crib, they will gain mobility and curiosity as they get older. We urge you to secure all cords from the get-go, since you'll have forgotten about cord placement months later when your baby becomes mobile and can reach the cords.
Choosing the Right Monitor for You
Here are some guidelines on how to choose the best monitor for your needs.
First - Range
Without a doubt range is going to be the biggest limiting factor in any of the monitors you might consider, no matter what type you are looking at. Sound monitors in general have longer ranges indoor and outdoor than video, but it can still be a problem finding one that works in your home depending on the distance between units and the number of obstructions and interference that might be present. The Angelcare AC420 has the longest range in our review working at 110 feet and through 6 walls. However, most of the audio monitors we reviewed worked up to 90 feet through 5 walls indoor range, so the difference isn't too bad. Both our Editors' Choice pick, Philips Avent SCD570, and our Best Value winner, Vtech Safe & Sound DM221, worked at 90 feet.
The Wifi video monitors, like the Nest Cam are game-changers when it comes to range. So long as you have a good strength wifi signal (or you buy wifi repeaters to extend the range), a solution like the Nest Cam can work at any distance. You can monitor from work as easily as you can from the next room. For the Wifi monitors, you'll need to evaluate range based on whether you have adequate wifi signal strength from everywhere you expect to place the camera (typically the nursery room), and everywhere you expect to monitor from. You'll also need a reasonably fast internet connection. If you are having trouble watching NetFlix, then a wifi monitor is not for you.
Second - Sound Clarity
We love sound activation and think it is well worth any extra penny to get a monitor that has it as a feature. It can make or break whether or not you ever get to sleep at night, and given that is the whole point of a monitor we find that monitors that lack it, also lack our love. Both of our award winners scored 10 out of 10 for sound activation by going silent quickly and "waking" up as soon as baby cried. If you are considering a movement/sound monitor the Angelcare AC701 also earned a relatively high score with 9 out of 10 for this feature. Theoretically, sound activation also solves any interference issues a monitor might have as well.
Last - Features
While we think you should be able to narrow down your selection of which monitor to buy by range and sound activation alone, there might be features you are looking for that aren't captured in those two metrics. The primary one being movement monitoring capabilities. Out of 9 monitors, we looked at only the Anglecare AC701 has a movement sensor. It scored about average out of the 9, but if a movement monitor is important to you, it did well enough to merit a look-see. Its overall score tied with our Best Value pick, the VTech Safe & Sound, and it has nice scores for range and features specifically. The sound clarity isn't as good as the award winners, but it is passable and the activation feature will prevent parents from listening to chronic white noise. You might also want the 2 way talk to baby feature or feel a nightlight is non-negotiable. Given that both award winners came with many of the most coveted features we feel confident there is an option for everyone.
All monitors for baby have come a long way. No matter what kind of monitor you are considering, there are options available for a myriad of prices and levels of quality. If seeing video isn't a necessity to you, then you might save a few bucks by going with a sound only option. If monitoring baby's movement feels like a necessity, you may consider that as an option before a sound only monitor as they provide both sound and movement. But no matter which way you go or what price range you settle on, there is something for everyone in our monitor reviews.