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More sensor tech for tots: Owlet turns to the crowd to launch breathing monitor for babies

Baby monitors that merely sit on the sidelines observing sleeping infants could become passé — that is if a small crop of new startups have their way.

Sensor-equipped “smart” onesies and, even diapers, promise parents a new way to track and analyze their infant’s vital signs. Now, a “smart” sock developed by Salt Lake City, Utah-based Owlet wants to help parents keep tabs on their infants’ breathing.

The device, which was developed by a team of students from Brigham Young University and has raised $250,000 in seed funding and prize money from business plan competitions, was first announced last year. On Monday, the startup said it had launched a crowdfunding campaign on its website to raise $100,000 to bring its devices to market.

Other sensor-based baby clothing and accessories similarly claim to monitor babies’ wellbeing — for example, the Rest and Exmobaby onesies use temperature and movement sensors to monitor their infants’ heart rate, temperature, respiration and movement. Sproutling is also working on a sensor-packed anklet that gives parents their babies’ health data while it sleeps.

But Owlet co-founder Jordan Monroe said its device zeroes in on babies’ breathing in a more specific way.

“For babies, a lot of issues could block their air — from blankets on their mouth to their movement,” he said. By using pulse oximetry, a monitoring technique that emits LED light and passes it through a more translucent part of a patient’s body, Owlet can determine a baby’s oxygen saturation, he explained. The device will ultimately retail for about $199 but will be available to early supporters for $159.

On adults, pulse oximeters may be attached to the finger. But for infants, Owlet’s sock uses five different sensors to assess how much oxygen a baby is getting, as well as his heart rate, temperature and when he changes position. It then wirelessly transmits the information to an iPhone application, so that a parent can check on her child from more than 120 feet away.

The device has yet to be approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. But like other new health tech devices before it — like Scanadu’s Scout “tricorder” and BioSense Technologies’ urine-analysis device — Owlet hopes its new crowdfunding campaign will help it reach consumers willing to provide usability feedback that could help with its FDA approval application.

In the meantime, Monroe said the company has been careful to position its device as a tool for providing parents extra health and wellbeing information — not a medical device. For example, it will alert parents when their babies have rolled over on to their stomachs (doctors advise that small infants sleep on their backs to decrease their chance of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS)). But the device does not tell parents when it detects a sudden change in heart rate or oxygen saturation.

As the company accumulates more data — and FDA approval — it intends to be able to share it with researchers and physicians to provide more services to parents. In time, Owlet hopes its device could be used for remote monitoring so that pediatricians can get a fuller picture of infants’ health in between visits.

While the sock does provide parents with more information on their baby’s health and could give medical professionals and researchers a new window on to infant health, my concern with it is that, without the proper context, the extra data could just lead to unnecessary anxiety or give parents a false sense of security in the event of an actual problem.  For example, even though home ultrasound devices, called dopplers, can detect fetal heartbeats, doctors have warned against them because they can lead to more parental stress or give parents false reassurances that can lead to delayed medical care.

The company said its device was developed after CEO and co-founder Kurt Workman (now a father-to-be of a new baby) helped care for his twin cousins who were born prematurely. One of his cousins passed away from SIDS, driving home the importance of making sure babies get enough oxygen, the company said.

Assuming its campaign is successful, the company plans to start shipping devices in November.

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