Buyer's guide to baby monitors

Baby monitors are perfect for peace of mind while your baby sleeps. But which style is best for you?

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  • What is a baby monitor?

    A baby monitor is a device that enables you to listen to or see your baby while he or she is in another room. It means you can watch your baby or hear whenever she wakes up or cries, wherever you are in the house and with some newer apps, even if you're miles away!

    They're great for helping put anxious parents' minds at rest.

    Most modern models feature a base station transmittor equipped with a mic and camera, for the nursery (called the baby unit), and a portable speaker you can move around with you (called the parent unit).

  • Do you want digital or analogue?

    Audio monitors usually come in wireless digital or analogue models. Analogue monitors are cheaper, but can suffer from more interference from other appliances, such as cordless phones or wifi networks, and this can affect sound quality.

    They also theoretically present a risk to privacy, as transmissions could be 'tapped into' - for example, by other baby monitor receivers nearby.

    Digital monitors are fast becoming the more popular option, though they tend to be pricier. They offer longer range signals (so are useful in larger houses), greater privacy and clearer reception, with less interference from other frequencies and many offer a wide choice of potential operating channels.

    Some parents may be concerned about digital monitors that operate using DECT (Digital Enhanced Cordless Telecommunication) technology and emit electromagnetic radiation. No health risks to babies or young children have been linked, but for peace of mind, you might wish to keep your monitor's baby unit at least 1 metre from your baby's head.

  • Do you want just sound or visuals, too?

    Most parents are happy using audio monitors, as they provide all the ressurance and insight into their baby’s night-time stirrings they need. However, video monitors are growing in popularity.

    These 'baby cams' use one or more video cameras to stream footage to a receiver with an LCD screen, usually via a wifi connection.

    You can also use cables to receive pictures on your TV, while some systems stream video straight to your mobile phone or computer, and record footage.

    Extra cameras can be used, for example, to monitor twins. Video monitors are pricier than audio monitors, often costing £150-plus, though prices are reducing all the time.

    Most offer night vision using infrared LCDS, so you can check on your baby even after dark (they usually switch automatically into this mode). Check your video system has an encoded signal so you have total privacy.

    If you’re considering a video monitor, decide if you really need to see your baby every second of the day – however cute they are! Will you end up worrying all the time? Finally, make sure the device has good sound as well as images as you might not be glued to the screen all the time.

  • Do you want crying and movement alerts?

    Just as an audio monitor lets you hear when your baby’s unsettled, you can buy devices that track your baby's breathing and movement patterns, too. These work by having movement sensor pads placed under the cot mattress. An alarm will sound if, for any reason, your baby stops moving for around 20 seconds.

    Some parents many parents find movement sensors very reassuring, for others, it really is a step beyond their needs. You need to bear in mind you could experience false alarms – if, say, your baby rolls off the area of mattress covering the sensor mat. Some experts believe these and other monitors also offer a false sense of security - be sure to carry on checking your baby personally if you're worried. There’s no evidence that baby monitors can prevent SIDS.

    Also explore the different alerts offered by baby monitors. Many flash LED lights to signal your baby is crying, meaning you can literally 'see' sounds even when the volume is turned off. Others beep or vibrate, or let you know when the battery is flat. It's worth deciding which alerts you’ll appreciate, and what could become irritating.

    Monitors with a temperature gauge are useful, and some sound an alarm if the nursery is too hot or cold.

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  • Where will you use it?

    Before choosing a monitor, think where you'll actually use it. If your house is rattle-around large, a long-range digital monitor with portable parent unit might be best. If your home is small, a basic model could be just fine. If you're in an apartment block, with multiple neighbours, privacy may be an issue so a monitor featuring digital encryption will give peace of mind.

    Also consider if you’d like to use your monitor when you head out into the garden, with your baby asleep inside. Or if you’ll use it at grandma's house or while on holiday.

    Little details can make all the difference – a belt clip for the parent unit is handy if you're constantly running from room to room. An alert when you've wandered out of range is also useful.

    Don't forget to check how your monitor is powered. Some charge off the mains in a dock (like a mobile or iPod), others use batteries, some do both. Investigate how long the charge lasts too.

    Some monitors have extra handsets - perfect if you want one permanently posted in the kitchen, and one in the living room. And what about if you want to monitor more than one child? Some systems can receive audio from a number of locations, though there's limited choice on the market here. The other option is to buy two monitors – if you do, make sure the frequencies won't clash.

  • Do you want to be able to soothe your baby?

    Baby monitors don’t just have to act like a listening device – many now have extra functions that offer real value for money. Some play a choice of soothing lullabies or sounds, others feature nightlights. These can become a valuable part of your baby's bedtime routine, and offer familiarity when you're away from home. Often lullabies or nightlights can be triggered remotely from the parent unit, so you needn’t disturb you baby by popping into the nursery.

    'Talkback' is another useful function to look out for. It means your voice can be transmitted via a mic in the parent unit back to the baby unit so baby can hear you. It's potentially good for letting fractious babies know you haven't abandoned them without continually popping upstairs, or waking them further by entering the room. And it’s also handy for talking to your partner walkie-talkie style, or indeed your child when he or she gets older!

  • Where do you start?

    Before you spend any money, check out our 10 of the best monitors or see how various brands and models stack up with our in-depth baby monitor reviews

Last updated on 16 December 2015


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