Quantified babies: Is wearable tech for your newborn really safe?

We ask an expert whether strapping wearables to babies makes sense
Is wearable tech for your baby safe?

Until now the focus of wearables for children has been firmly in the safety space, with startups flogging souped-up GPS trackers to keep anxious parents happy about where their ten year olds have run off to.

But over the past twelve months a number of brands have emerged, including Sproutling, MonBaby and Mimo, that are developing wearables to track all kinds of metrics from babies that are just a few days old.

Read this: The best parenting wearables and smart baby monitors

These metrics include sleep duration, temperature, breathing rate, motion, sleep position, and that's just the data tracked by some of the most high profile devices on the market. There's way more out there. Clearly a wearable tech baby boom is on the way.

Parental concerns

As you'd expect, these kinds of products have been greeted with mixed reactions from parents, the medical industry and tech commentators alike. And that's hardly surprising. Many of us will eat things, wear things and try things that we wouldn't want our 12 year olds to eat, wear and try. Let alone a baby that's only been on the planet for a week.

There's only been sparse research into the safety of wearable tech, let alone for kids

Put simply, you don't need to be an overprotective parent or tech specialist to imagine what some of the concerns might be.

I asked my Twitter followers what they thought about wearable tech for babies and within minutes some were expressing concerns about the effect of low energy Bluetooth on children so young, whether certain materials might be irritable, if gadgets heat up too much over time and more abstract questions about whether a young child might find the wearable to be an emotional anchor or if we should really be outsourcing our parenting skills to a gadget.

Read this: Pregnancy tech wearables and connected devices

Here at Wareable we want to start cutting through the noise, explore whether wearable tech aimed solely at children should be embraced or approached with caution and identify what research already exists.

And the answer to the latter is: very little. It turns out there's been only sparse research into the safety implications of wearable tech by either institutions or companies themselves, let alone wearable tech built for kids. Which had me wondering whether this is because those in the know are convinced it's safe or that the research and important questions haven't quite caught up at the same rate as early adopters yet.

Mobile phone health scares

I spoke with Dr. Will Whittow, the Senior Lecturer in Electronic Engineering at Loughborough University who specialises in researching wearable antennas, electromagnetics, specific absorption rates (SAR) and much more. I asked him about the public perception of new technologies and whether we ever really have anything to worry about.

"New technology always has uncertainties related to possible health effects. The public are right to ask this question but there is often a disconnect between the scientists and the general public," he said. "Mobile phones have been anecdotally linked to possible brain cancers and other related health concerns and the media tend to sensationalise this without giving a balanced argument."

He went on to tell me that the World Health Organisation knows of no mechanism that electromagnetic waves, used in wireless communication, cause harmful effects, as long as the power limits are monitored. He delved a little deeper into how the WHO has come to these conclusions:

"Electronic engineers can simulate the electromagnetic fields in the body and in collaboration with people from medical backgrounds can determine the levels of power absorbed in the head and regulate these to safe levels. The WHO also say that there is no statistical evidence that mobile phones are linked to harmful health effects."

Side effects of wearable tech

It's good to know that mobile phones are safer than some health scares would have us all believe. But what about wearable tech? Back in March the New York Times published a feature about the possible side effects of wearable tech, likening our attitude to the emerging space to the naivety doctors had about cigarettes decades ago.

But despite the fact people were frantically sharing the piece online, causing everyone wearing a Fitbit to sweat nervously, it came to no real conclusions about wearable tech and health, a pattern I'm finding in a lot of research about this topic. I asked Whittow about his opinion on the safety of wearable tech specifically.

"Wearable technology is similar to mobile phones in that electromagnetic waves are used for communication," he said. "The vast majority of these use Bluetooth or Wi-Fi and therefore have much lower power levels than mobile phones as the communication distance is much shorter. In many cases the transmit power is so low that devices do not need to be tested for specific absorption rate levels.

"This is analogous to needing a powerful torch to see to the end of your garden. Therefore, the power absorbed by the body will decrease proportionally. The only difference is that the wearable technology will be closer to your skin for longer periods albeit it is unlikely to be transmitting all the time."

What about newborn babies? We discussed whether that thinking would still be watertight if we're talking about a much much smaller human being, he explained, "There is no direct link between negative health effects in children and electromagnetic waves at allowable power levels."But Whittow did say that because young children and babies may be more sensitive to their environments, the regulatory authorities do advise that children should limit their time spent talking on phones.

Is the tech safe?

So what's the answer? Well, it's not as black and white as the question - is the tech safe or isn't it? At this early stage of using these devices, it's impossible to prove that something is 100 percent safe. What we can determine is that all wearable technology will either be tested by the authorities or use much lower power levels than mobile phones. In the latter case, it's highly likely that wearable tech will result in lower SAR levels (electromagnetic energy absorbed in the body) than mobiles.

So if you're not concerned about using mobile phones around children, then it seems like wearable tech needn't by a worry either. Despite some of the raised eyebrows, it looks like demand so far for kiddie gadgets is high. After all, people love to buy stuff for their babies and wearable devices are likely to be no exception.

Most parents I spoke to about this feature said that unless their child had health problems already, it probably wouldn't be worth it. Away from the safety issue, the idea that too much data without purpose becomes meaningless is a sentiment we've heard echoed throughout the whole wearable tech space regardless of whether wearables are built for youngsters or adults. Which goes to show, just because you can strap something to your baby, doesn't necessarily mean you should.

What do you think?

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