Baby monitors often feature near the top of the equipment list for new parents, but finding the one that best suits your needs and your budget can be pretty daunting.
Will a basic audio-only device be enough or do you want a video system that streams images of your baby straight to your smartphone? Do you need your monitor to include a thermometer? How about a light show? And how do baby monitors even work anyway?
This guide gives an overview of baby monitor features and functionality before you check out the best baby monitors.
Do I need a baby monitor?
You may decide that the size and layout of your house doesn’t warrant a baby monitor, or perhaps you’re a light sleeper who hears every gurgle. That said, do bear in mind:
- An extra audio or visual aid can still be useful – you might want to binge on Netflix without pressing mute every few minutes to check that that sound wasn’t your baby
- A monitor with a decent signal range means you can spend sunny evenings in the garden while your baby’s tucked up in bed and still be able to hear them if they need you
- Even a basic audio-only product means you’ll be able to hear your baby, even if you need to close their bedroom door to keep pets out
- If you have thick walls or a sound-proof house then you’ll probably find a baby monitor pretty essential
My husband and I found baby monitors really useful. Usually for telling each other “It’s your turn!” after we’d spent an hour in the dark trying to get the baby to sleep.
How do baby monitors work?
Baby monitors come in two parts: one part stays with your baby, e.g. in their bedroom, and the other part stays with you, e.g. on the kitchen worktop. The baby unit sends sound (and images, in the case of video monitors) to the parent unit so you can hear (and see) what is happening.
These days, baby monitors tend to be digital rather than analogue. Gone are the days of picking up sounds from the baby three doors down or from your local radio station.
Digital monitors have a crisp and clear sound quality, and most of the ones we tested use Digital Enhanced Cordless Technology (DECT), which means secure data encryption, no annoying interference and a noise filter so you’ll only hear sounds from your baby.
Are baby monitors safe?
Most monitors are solid pieces of kit, designed to withstand knocks and drops from tired parents and boisterous toddlers. Some devices come with stands and some even have a wall-mounting option that'll keep it well out of harm's way.
As with any electronic product, it's important to understand how far it must be kept from your baby, so make sure you read the instructions before setting it up. Make sure you keep cords and spare batteries well out of your child’s reach too.
Wifi monitors are sometimes associated with hacking and privacy concerns, and although the jury’s out on how much of an issue this actually is, it’s sensible to follow good practice:
- Create a new, strong password when you set the monitor up and change this regularly
- Only use secure wifi connections that you trust
- Enable automatic security software updates
- Turn off remote access to the monitor when not needed or put some tape over the camera
- Choose a product that offers two-step authentication to reduce the risk of strangers accessing your monitor
When it comes to preventing Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS), many parents believe that having a monitor that's sensitive to their baby's breathing is the ideal solution.
However, Kate Holmes, Support and Information Manager at The Lullaby Trust, says, “There is no research to support the belief that baby monitors prevent SIDS, but we do know that many parents find these monitors reassuring and that they give many families peace of mind”.
The four types of baby monitors
1. Audio baby monitors
Audio-only monitors are generally an affordable option and are simple to set up and to use. They let you listen in on your baby so that you can hear them snuffling as they drift off to sleep or crying when they’ve woken up.
Two-way baby monitors do this too, but they also let you chat to and reassure your baby from another room.
If you’re hard of hearing or just like dancing in the kitchen with the volume turned up loud, consider a model with sound-sensitive lights so that you can see if your baby is stirring.
The most basic audio-only models cost around £20 and are one-way, so you’ll be able to hear your baby but they won’t be able to hear you. Many parents find this enough, especially if they live in a small house or flat.
Two-way monitors have a talkback function that enables you to attempt to soothe your baby back to sleep from another room. It's pot luck whether you've been given a baby who will allow herself to be comforted by your disembodied voice – but since the two-way versions usually cost only a little more than one-way models, it might be worth giving it a go.
On several occasions when DS has stirred I've been able to sing to him over the monitor and settle him rather than get up.
2. Baby movement monitors
Baby movement monitors, like the Angelcare 517, detect movement as well as sound. They come with a sensor pad that sits under the cot mattress and alerts you if there’s no movement for 20 seconds.
Although the sensitivity setting can be adjusted to avoid false alarms, some parents can find this type of monitor more anxiety-inducing than reassuring.
If you can afford it, and you think it will help you to sleep better, then go ahead. If you feel like it will only feed your anxiety, opting for a video or sound only monitor might be a better choice. Most parents will end up hovering over their sleeping newborn at some point, regardless of whether they have a motion sensor or not.
3. Video baby monitors
Video monitors let you see what your baby is getting up to, giving you that extra bit of reassurance without having to open the door to check on them and risk waking them up.
A HD colour screen and night vision camera (so that you see your baby in the dark) often come as standard, with some models also including remote control camera functions that let you zoom, tilt and pan (useful for spotting where your baby has wriggled to in the cot) and record footage (useful to confirm that your babysitter meant it when they said your toddler had behaved angelically). Slightly Truman Show, but altogether very useful.
Some video monitors allow you to connect additional cameras, meaning you can keep an eye on children in different bedrooms, which is useful for larger families.
4. Wifi video baby monitors
Wifi video monitors use a wifi connection to sync to your phone so you can say goodnight to your baby while you’re at work or watch them as well as talk about them on date night (just us?). Some wifi monitors let you save clips, hook up to Alexa and Google Assistant, and come with Cloud storage too.
Concerns about security can deter some parents from this type of monitor and others find a digital connection more stable. However, if you have a decent wifi connection and take reasonable safety precautions, it offers a way of checking in on your child remotely.
How to choose the best baby monitor for you
There are a number of things to think about when deciding between products, including practical considerations, safety issues and ‘wow’ factors.
1. Check the basics
Signal, battery and connectivity can vary enormously between products.
Whether you live in a five-storey mansion or a studio flat, you need the signal to go the distance. That includes through thick walls.
Even if eight hours of sleep feels like a pipe dream right now, this is, ideally, the minimum baby monitors should claim to last before they need to be recharged.
Look for a baby monitor with a reliable connection, and one without any lag. With baby monitors that use wifi, some log you out when the connection drops out.
2. What about the extras?
Baby monitors often come jam-packed with extras. Choose from thermometers that let you see at a glance that the room isn’t too hot or too cold, soothing light shows and lullabies to make bedtime more relaxing, or even humidity sensors and feeding timers for the ultimate techy nursery.
One of the most underrated extras is the out-of-range indicator – this lets you know that the blissful silence you’re enjoying is only because the parent unit is no longer picking up any signal.
3. Do I need night vision?
Many video monitors feature night vision (aka infrared light) so you can see your baby in the dark. This is obviously pretty useful – it can help you know whether to leave things a bit longer to see if your baby will drop back off, or whether they're wide awake already.
Some audio monitors have a nightlight on the parent unit that can project images on the walls and ceiling of your baby's room. These are intended to soothe your baby when they stir and can be activated from the parent unit. For most parents, this will be a ‘nice-to-have’ rather than a deal-breaker.
4. Do I need a thermometer?
Some monitors have a thermometer that shows the temperature in your baby’s room. The temperature should be between 16 and 20°C to make sure that your baby doesn't get too hot.
This is actually a very handy feature – you won't be the first anxious new parent to wake your baby while creeping in to check the temperature, and this feature spares the ensuing ‘why, WHY did I do that?’ conversation with yourself.
5. How often do baby monitors need charging?
Most baby monitors will claim to last up to eight hours before they need to be reconnected to the mains and, when it comes to battery life, it's a case of the longer the better.
Some monitors may need to be plugged in overnight if the battery life leaves a lot to be desired.
6. How much do baby monitors cost?
This depends on the brand, the extra features and the style of monitor. For a basic audio monitor, you needn't pay more than £50, but if you want an all-singing, all-dancing video monitor with super-sharp image quality, expect to pay around £200.
7. Not just for babies
Baby monitors aren’t just for babies – they’re also really handy for parents who need to look in on children with additional needs, i.e. for amplifying alarms from medical kit or to give a little more peace of mind in the case of nocturnal seizures.
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