Choosing a Baby Monitor
Baby monitors -- even cheap baby monitors -- are a bit of a luxury, especially compared with things like diapers and bottles. But many new moms and dads see a good baby monitor as indispensable. Some of the most popular brands of cheap baby monitors are Fisher-Price, Graco, Safety 1st, Sony, Summer Infant, and The First Years. Prices range from $15 for an analog audio monitor with one parent unit to $100 and up for a video monitor with digital technology.
Analog vs. Digital Baby Monitors.The principal difference between analog and digital baby monitors is that digital baby monitors encode the signals sent from the transmitter to the parent units, which keeps you from overhearing your neighbors' baby crying and your neighbors from hearing yours. Digital baby monitors also tend to be more expensive than analog models, but they can be a good value if you live close to other homes with baby monitors.
Now, before you decide to risk hearing a few random coos from the baby next door, keep in mind that your neighbors might also overhear conversations that take place near your transmitter -- conversations you want to remain private. Digital baby monitors are also excellent at minimizing interference from other electronic devices such as cellphones, cordless phones, and wireless routers. If you don't live close to other homes with babies, some analog models deliver good sound quality for a good price. If you want to eliminate privacy concerns, consider one of the digital baby monitors on our list.
Video Baby Monitors.Video is a popular feature, but you can spend $200 or more on a digital video baby monitor, or even an analog one. With analog models, video signals can be transmitted outside your home just like audio signals can. If you think having a neighbor overhear a private conversation is bad, imagine how you'd feel if a stranger could see right into your nursery.
Infant video monitors have also become somewhat controversial due to concern about strangulation. Unlike an audio monitor, which you can place nearly anywhere in a child's room, a video monitor generally requires placing a camera closer to the crib, where your baby may be able to reach it and become tangled in the cord. About 1.7 million Summer Infant video monitors were recalled in February 2011 so the company could provide new warning labels and instructions, as well as clips for mounting the cord on the wall.
Movement and Sound Monitors.Another pricey and controversial design is an Angelcare movement and sound monitor. This series of baby monitors features movement sensors to alert you if your child has stopped breathing or moving. While that seems ideal for preventing Sudden Infant Death Syndrome, monitoring is unlikely to prevent SIDS deaths. Of course, some proponents still believe buying a movement and sound monitor couldn't hurt. Unfortunately, Angelcare baby monitors are notorious for false alarms, especially with babies old enough to move away from the pad that's designed to alert you if it stops sensing movement. While sites such as Amazon are filled with positive reviews from parents who interpret false alarms as evidence that a movement and sound monitor is working, others don't appreciate the panic and anxiety -- or just being woken up needlessly night after night.
Discontinued Baby Monitors.Each year, manufacturers introduce new baby monitors and discontinue older models -- even some that remain quite popular. Often a new model will have all the features of the previous model but boast different technology that promises less interference or enhanced privacy. All the models on our list have been widely reviewed online, but make sure the cheap baby monitor you're interested in is still available before getting too excited by reviews that may be out of date.
The good news is that even when a manufacturer discontinues a good cheap baby monitor, you may still be able to find it with a bit of effort, and often at a discount that will save you even more. An impressive variety of new and used baby monitors (and reviews) also lives on eBay, Amazon, and Craigslist, as well as in consignment shops. Just ask about the return policy before you buy.
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Features Comparison Buying Guide continues below table
Baby Monitor Reviews: What We Considered
Reviews are good indicators of a baby monitor's performance, but it can vary widely based on things like the number, types, and locations of electronic devices in a home and even the proximity of neighbors using baby monitors. The home's layout can also play a role; walls between the transmitter and receiver can interfere with the signal. Reviews are mixed for all manufacturers, even household names, due to this unpredictable performance. For every parent driven crazy by static or a poor signal, another claims to be able to hear a pin drop in the baby's room. Customer satisfaction also varies based on sound quality, false alarms, and battery life.
Cheap baby monitors have unique sets of features, so what works for another family may not work for you. The first decision to make is whether you're okay with an analog monitor or prefer the privacy of digital baby monitors, which encode signals sent from the transmitter to the parent units. Baby monitors operate on different frequencies and have different ranges, and you may simply have to try one before you can know for sure whether it will work in your home without interfering with other electronics. Look for a monitor with more than one parent unit and indicators to alert you when you're out of range or running low on battery. Finally, multiple power options add versatility and reliability.
Frequency.Each baby monitor has an operating frequency band listed on its packaging -- typically either 900 MHz or 2.4 GHz. Take an inventory of the electronics in your home and find out which frequencies they use, so you can choose a baby monitor that operates on a different frequency band and won't interfere with devices such as a wireless router or cordless phone. Interference can range from a bad signal to a virtually inoperable phone or computer, so it's important to find a monitor that coexists peacefully with your other electronics.
Some digital monitors now use the 1.9 GHz frequency band, which sees less traffic and can help minimize interference. Models that offer this baby monitor frequency band use digital enhanced cordless telecommunications technology. A DECT monitor may be the best option when it comes to frequency but is usually more expensive.
If you're unsure which frequency you need or can't find an affordable monitor with a unique frequency, you can always buy what you think is the best baby monitor for you and see how it works in your home. Many parents who worry about interference experience few problems with it, largely due to the location of their electronics in relation to the baby monitor.
You may also be able to mitigate any issues by selecting a baby monitor with multiple channels. To help minimize interference from nearby electronic devices, many inexpensive baby monitors offer a range of channels within their particular frequency band (similar to AM or FM radio). That means even if multiple devices in your home share the same frequency band, changing the channel can eliminate interference. Baby monitors can have as few as two or as many as 60 available channels.
Parent Units.Buying a baby monitor with more than one parent unit can raise the cost $20 to $30 but allows more than one person to monitor the baby. Having multiple parent receivers is also more convenient than carrying the same receiver around the house during the day and into your bedroom each night. All major baby monitor brands offer models with two parent units.
Many baby monitors light up or vibrate when they detect sound coming from the baby's room. LED indicator lights get brighter or increase in number based on the volume of the baby's cry, which helps parents react before the child enters full screaming mode. Sound-activated lights and vibration are also useful if you turn the volume down when you're on the phone or use earphones. Some users simply like being awakened by a vibrating monitor instead of a screaming baby.
Pricier models often include the option of remotely turning on a nightlight, music, or nature sounds from the parent unit without going into the baby's room. Although you shouldn't buy a baby monitor just for lights and lullabies, many parents appreciate such amenities.
Range.If you learn anything in a search for the best baby monitor, it should be not to trust the range listed by the manufacturer. That's because it indicates the distance the monitor signal can travel in a straight line, with no walls or other obstructions and no interfering electronic devices. As a result, many users report that the ranges indicated by manufacturers are exaggerated. That said, if you have a large house or plan to take the parent unit outdoors on a regular basis, you probably want to choose a baby monitor with a greater stated range, then test it in your home to be sure it's sufficient.
Indicators.An out-of-range indicator lets you know when you've taken a receiver too far from the transmitter to receive a good signal. For many parents, this feature can make or break a baby monitor. Without it, you have no way of knowing if silence means your baby is just being quiet or the monitor has stopped transmitting the sound of her wails. A quality monitor needs an out-of-range indicator in order to be reliable, which is why we picked only monitors that have one.
Another key feature is a low-battery indicator, which displays a light or icon to alert you when the receiver battery is low. This is important if you regularly use a baby monitor on battery power, since some cheap baby monitors go through batteries in as little as eight hours. Like an out-of-range indicator, a low-battery indicator is a must-have unless you want to constantly wonder whether the monitor is working. All the budget baby monitors we picked have low-battery indicators.