Here’s How Experts Say We Should Be Using Baby Monitors

Baby monitors are safety devices, but over time their use may yield more risk than reward. Why experts say their continued use could impact everyone in your home. 

An image of a mother using a baby monitor on her phone.
Photo: Getty Images.

Burglars. Fires. Carbon monoxide. SIDS. Faulty baby cribs. Cantankerous raccoon invaders. These are the things that keep me up at night. Yes, some are unrealistic, but I want to know my girls are safe when they're sleeping. That's why my wife and I still have a monitor in each of their rooms—they're now 2 and 4.

Many parents stop using a baby monitor much sooner, but I'm having trouble with the idea of removing them from my kids' rooms. I've created a habit of waking up every couple of hours to check their monitors and make sure my daughters are OK.

Here's my reality: My wife sleeps peacefully through the night, while I wake up with every little bang and squeak that comes out of the monitor. I get out of bed, check all key entry points, listen for any irregular sounds, and eventually get back into bed. Every morning when my alarm goes off, I lurch through my morning routine like a zombie.

Experts say I eventually should cut my kids free from my nightly surveillance. It will be good for them and for me.

The Downside of Using Baby Monitors for Too Long

It's natural for parents to worry. We want to make sure our kids are safe. But overdoing it can affect our children in the long run. "Your kid needs to feel safe and secure in their bed, in their home. And to what extent is having a monitor going to impede that developing sense of safety?" asks Rebecca Schrag Hershberg, Ph.D., a mom of two, clinical psychologist, and author of The Tantrum Survival Guide.

Constant nightly surveillance may even lead to anxiety issues in children since they begin to question their own safety. "Kids think, 'it must not be safe because my parents feel like they need to watch me, so, clearly, dangerous things can happen in my bed,'" explains Dr. Hershberg.

It's not just the surveillance, but also the interference. So often I hear my daughters call out and I want to run to their aid. One night this week, I retrieved and replaced an elephant binky in one room and a sloth stuffy in the other. Licensed anxiety treatment specialist Jennifer Bronsnick, MSW, LCSW, believes my quick response to their early morning calls may impede their ability to self-soothe, which is a critical coping mechanism.

"If a parent is the only one who can provide the soothing to the child, that is how you create an anxiety disorder in kids," explains Bronsnick. Parents need to ask themselves, "Am I doing this because it's actually a real safety issue, and I need to know what's going on in the room? Or is this actually feeding my anxiety in some way and not providing any more safety than it would if they're not being monitored?"

Experts point out it's important for parents like me to pull back and learn how to cope without constant monitoring because these habits can carry on as children grow older. Gary T. Marx, Ph.D., an MIT professor emeritus who has written and spoken extensively on surveillance, says it often doesn't stop with baby monitors. Parents may continue monitoring by tracking phones and devices, or even using an app to see where their kids are driving—all because of their own fears. "Parents want to be good parents, but these devices play on your guilt: if you don't do this, then your child might be at risk of abusing drugs or driving too fast," says Dr. Marx. Of course, there are instances where parents do need to check devices if they feel their child is in danger but crossing that boundary shouldn't be without good reason.

When To Stop Using a Baby Monitor

Every situation is different for if and when you should set up a monitoring system in your home—and when you should turn them off for good. Some babies, especially those with health issues, might need a close watch and for a longer period of time. Parents who sleep on separate floors from their kids might want a way to hear what's going on the kids' floor. But the need to know what's happening changes as children get older and become more responsible. There isn't a set recommended age to stop using baby monitors, but Dr. Hershberg believes there is an expiration date for using one.

"When a child is developmentally able to express their distress, to have a sense of their own space and privacy—I would say somewhere between 3 and 5," says Dr. Hershberg. "But, certainly, earlier, I have no issue with. And 5 seems a little on the late side, depending on all these other factors."

Bronsnick, who didn't use a baby monitor for her kids, recommends that parents who do have monitors use them in stages. "Maybe you have the noise level alert sound set high until they're 1. Then at 1, you turn off the sound. Or maybe set it so it's not alerting you that much," says Bronsnick. That can make it easier for parents to stop using a baby monitor altogether when the time is right.

Breaking Free From the Baby Monitors

Tonight, I'm taking their advice. I'll keep monitoring my 2-year-old but will stop the constant surveillance of my 4-year-old. I'll leave the camera in her room in case I need to check on her, but I won't be alerted every time she coughs. In a few months, I'll remove the camera from her room and just keep a watchful eye on my 2-year-old—until she and I are ready for the next step.

My wife and I are one story up from their rooms. I'm sure there'll be a few sleepless nights for me. But if I expect my girls to learn how to self-soothe without my interference, then I should hold myself to that same standard—at least indoors. Outdoors, I have a rotation of Ring cams ready to spot the slightest sign of those cantankerous raccoon invaders.

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