What to look for when buying a baby monitor

Jas Dhaliwal 25 Mar 2020

There are 2 types of baby monitors – which is right for your household?

As a technologist and recent father, I recently had the need to purchase a baby monitor for my newborn son. It’s the first tech device parents add to the nursery, and it serves an all-important purpose – letting us keep eyes on the baby while we proceed with daily life. 

Baby monitors actually help in multiple ways. They’re a useful tool in teaching the baby to self-calm, they ease our nerves by letting us see the baby any time we wish, and they immediately report any sound or movement in the baby’s room. All of these benefits are invaluable, particularly to sleep-deprived new parents. 

The sheer range of baby monitors on the market is impressive. Devices come in all shapes and sizes with price points to match. With so many different monitors offering so many different features, knowing where to begin can be daunting. 

I knew there were essentially two kinds of video monitors – ”dedicated” and “Wi-Fi enabled” – but which was right for my family? I decided to explore what the market had to offer.

Dedicated baby monitors

This type of monitor is the most common. The satellite unit is placed in the nursery and the main unit is typically based in the parent's bedroom. Particular features differ between brands, but the core principle remains the same – the satellite unit watches the baby and the parents can monitor the main unit. Usually the main unit is portable, allowing parents to move around the house as they watch and listen. The device typically involves just one camera and a closed system of communication, which is why it’s called a “dedicated” monitor. 

It works much like a traditional walkie-talkie, just with a camera attached to it. You can find some dedicated baby monitors with a range of only 50 feet and others with a range up to 5,000 feet. Some use radio waves, some use bluetooth, and some transmit their signal across multiple frequencies, known as the frequency-hopping spread system (FHSS). While they are closed systems, they CAN be hacked if the attacker is physically close enough to one’s home to intercept the signal. The probability of this happening, however, is unlikely, and it’s a much more difficult task than hacking into a Wi-Fi enabled monitor. 

Wi-Fi connected monitors

This type of monitor requires an internet connection for the camera device and a compatible app that runs on a smartphone or computer. Again, the satellite unit is located in the nursery, and it pairs with the parents’ smartphones. Wi-Fi enabled monitors offer parents the convenience of checking in on their children from anywhere – in the home, across town, even in another country, as long as they have a Wi-Fi connection on both ends. 

Wi-Fi connected monitors have rapidly become popular in recent years. Their prices have fallen as most consumers have realized smartphone apps can provide a wider breadth of function than the dedicated video displays – now they can watch and listen to the baby from anywhere (with an internet connection). This level of convenience, however, comes at a cost to security and privacy, since the devices are always “on” and connected to the internet. Hackers can use websites such as Shodan to scan for vulnerable, unpatched devices open to attack. 

The verdict

Weighing the potential security vulnerabilities of each, I decided against the Wi-Fi connected monitor. I remembered the multiple news stories that broke last year about Nest and Ring webcams being hacked; and, while I know both of those companies do offer a layer of security protection, I just wasn't comfortable with my video feed being delivered over the internet. Security and privacy were more important to me than the convenience of accessing the video feed from anywhere. I chose to go with a dedicated baby monitor.

Now, I know there are some cases where the convenience of checking in from anywhere is critical to parents. If a Wi-Fi connected monitor is best for your situation, just keep these tips in mind as you choose the right one for your family:

  • Buy your device from a reputable manufacturer and ensure that it will receive security updates. Check for updates as soon as you have set up the device and connected it to the internet.
  • Set up your baby monitor with a strong and complex password. Avoid using the default username and password options offered with the device. If the monitor offers two-factor authentication, enable it.
  • Avoid devices that offer no level of encryption. As the device transmits data over the internet, the connection to the manufacturer's cloud infrastructure may not be protected, which can lead to man-in-the-middle types of security attacks. Instead, look for devices that offer at least a bare minimum of SSL/TLS encryption.

Every household has to prioritize their own particular needs, and there is no one size that fits all. In my personal situation, I didn’t feel I needed all the bells and whistles of a Wi-Fi enabled baby monitor. For me, the risks of that particular situation far outweigh the benefits. I know full well, though, that as my baby grows, our needs are going to change. In the not-so-distant future, I’ll be submerged in the world of nanny cams, kid-friendly tablets, children’s smart watches, and eventually mobile phones. All this tech helps parents keep eyes on their children, and it’s all important. But for now, I’m grateful to be only concerned with stage 1 – the simple baby monitor that will help me teach my child to fall asleep on his own.

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