Baby Monitor Buying Guide: How to Pick a Baby Monitor
Our popular best baby monitor reviews cover over 30 different top video baby monitors for the year, making for a confusing array of options! How did we pick them? What did we look for?
What to Look for in a Baby Monitor
This video baby monitor buying guide will walk you through all the essential things you should be looking for, and explore some of the fancier options that have emerged on the market over the past few years.
Examples of fancier baby models that have appeared on the market include wifi baby monitors, breathing detection, movement monitors, cry detection, multi-camera versatility, and more! To see how various baby monitor options and their features, check out our Ultimate Baby Monitor Comparison Chart!
Clarity of Daytime and Night Vision
When wireless baby monitor systems with screens were first introduced onto the market they used somewhat outdated display technology that made for a grainy, distorted and often unreliable picture. Newer baby monitors use a liquid crystal display similar to the ones used in your smart phone and other consumer electronics, so these HD video baby monitors tend to have very nice color contrast and high resolution, and are also substantially more reliable. All of the stand-alone baby monitors we list above have high-quality displays, and we do not recommend some of the relatively old fashioned ones that can still be found on the market. Of course, night vision doesn't use color - so the display will be either grayscale or show a slightly green hue. That's important to keep in mind before you try it out for the first time; not even military special operations have color night vision, so don't expect anything amazing, even from the best baby monitor!
Traditional versus Wifi Baby Monitors
Starting around 2010, parents began to switch from using baby monitors with a yoked camera and screen, to using wifi cameras that can stream over smart phones, tablets, and personal computers. At the time, there weren't very many wifi cameras aimed towards the baby gear market, so people were going with familiar wifi camera brands like Nest and Samsung. Over the next few years, companies slowly began introducing baby-themed wifi cameras onto the market. While even high-quality HD wifi cameras can be found for under $50 (like this one) nowadays, companies began to realize they could package a wifi camera as a baby monitor, change the colors and themes of the app, and charge 3-4 times the price. And they continue to use this strategy to this day! So which is better? Well, this really comes down to one thing: do you want to be able to view the nursery while you're not at home? If you answer yes to this question, then you need to use a wifi monitor as opposed to a typical baby monitor. A wifi baby monitor (or any wifi camera) will connect to your internet (some are wired, some through wifi only) and stream live (well, slightly delated) video to an app on your phone. That will work in the house or out of the house, as long as you have a fast internet connection. So you can simply BYOP (bring your own phone) and leverage 20th century technology! That seems really appealing, and we highly recommend some of the newer ones (like the Cocoon Cam, Lollipop, and Nanit), but there are some things to keep in mind when figuring out the type of monitor to buy:
- Internet speed is a challenge with wifi cameras and wifi baby monitors: people want cameras with high definition video (720p or 1080p), but most internet connections are nowhere near fast enough to stream that high-quality video in real time. So parents get really frustrated with their HD wifi baby monitors because they find the video choppy, laggy, and unreliable. Most modern wifi cameras allow you to lower the resolution of the video so you can still see your baby, but not in high def.
- Most people don't have unlimited data plans for their smart phone, and are surprised to see very high data usage after just a few hours of streaming their wifi baby monitor. With HD video, you can go through a couple gigabytes of data in just a few hours, so keep that in mind. If your phone is connected to wifi that won't matter, but if you're using 3G or 4G LTE cellular service, you will definitely have slow video and tons of data usage.
- If your internet goes down, your baby monitor goes down. A wifi baby monitor uses your home's internet connection to communicate to servers, then to your app. So if your internet connection goes down, then you will no longer be able to stream video of your baby. That's a huge consideration to keep in mind because you never know when your internet will slow down or simply stop working for several minutes or hours, and you will be stuck without a working baby monitor. There are a few wifi baby monitors that will still communicate locally (within your home's network) when the internet goes down, such as the Lollipop or Nanit. They do this by switching from internet to local area network when an outage is detected, so you can have confidence that if you're connected to your home wifi you'll still see your baby.
- Your phone might not have great battery life. Many parents who use a wifi baby monitor come to the realization that their smart phone battery life isn't so great when they are streaming a live video and audio feed from their baby monitor. If you have a newer iPhone or Android device, it will probably do pretty well, but if you have an older phone the batter is probably a bit weaker already and you will notice your battery life dropping pretty quickly during use. So definitely consider battery life and charging options for your smart phone when you are choosing between a self-contained versus wifi baby monitor.
If you really can't decide whether to go with wifi only or with a traditional baby camera with a parent unit, there is a new option for you: The Motorola Halo+ Baby Monitor integrates both a traditional parent unit screen (using traditional radio frequency) *AND* the ability to stream on a smartphone app via wifi. To check it out, click on the image to the right.
Portable Base Unit with Good Range
Babies go to bed earlier than parents, and they also nap during the day. Unless you want to spend your time sitting next to the baby monitor base unit watching the video stream, you're going to want a unit that has far range and good battery life. This will let you take the unit and, say, take out the trash or let the dog out, while still being able to see your baby. Better yet, many of our best-rated baby monitors are completely wireless and operate by running iPhone or Android apps on your smartphone to wirelessly view the digital color video stream wherever you are. In this way, you're no longer buying a camera and monitor, you're only buying the same cameras that modern security cameras use. This gives you a more universal baby monitor and makes portable wifi baby monitoring more convenient than ever, and we're definitely in support of this new trend. Want to keep an eye on your child while you're on date night? No problem, but only with one of these modern systems.
Adjustable Camera Pan/Tilt/Zoom
One of the most annoying things that can happen when you're using a baby monitor is closing the door and then turning on the video monitor only to realize that your camera isn't aimed at the baby at all, and you can't see a thing. Most of the baby monitor systems would require you to go back into your baby's room and manually adjust the camera. Some of the systems we review below have remotely adjustable camera angles, so you can pan side-to-side, tilt the camera angle upward/downward, and zoom in or out, without having to go back into your baby's room. Super convenient, and a critical feature to stay at the top of our baby monitor list. It's also nice to have a relatively wide-view camera, like the Summer Infant wide baby monitor, so that even if you don't have wireless camera panning and tilting, the odds of still seeing your baby are pretty high if you have a wide-angle camera.
Interchangeable Camera Lenses
Some of the newest baby monitors have interchangeable lenses to best suit your baby's room. If you have the camera positioned close to the baby, like on the edge of the crib or on a nearby dresser, you might prefer the wide angle camera. If you have the camera positioned relatively far from the baby, like on a bookshelf on the other side of the room, you might prefer the regular narrow angle camera. Flexibility is nice, particularly if you end up rearranging the room or have to move things out of the reach of a growing menace.
Intuitive and User-Friendly Menu and Features
What good are 25 fancy features if you can't figure out how to navigate the menu and customize settings or change options? All of the best baby monitors reviewed above have great utility, with high video quality and a nice feature set, but some of them have relatively high usability, which comes in handy when you don't want to spend too much time shuffling through menus to change one silly setting.
Integrated Intercom System
Some of the best baby monitors have a two-way audio intercom feature built in, allowing you to talk to your baby (sing a lullaby?), or allow the parents to talk to each other ("can you bring more wipes please!?") without yelling down the stairs or hallway.
We care a lot about the safety and well-being of your babies, and our baby monitor reviews are no exception to that rule. Most of the safety issues with baby monitor systems revolve around the parent's due diligence: secure the wires out of reach and out of sight from your baby, make sure you put the camera out of reach (especially when you're mounting to the rail of a crib), and always keep them away from water and a running humidifier. In addition to these basic safety tips, the newer heart rate monitoring, breathing monitoring (see our review of the Levana Oma Sense here), and movement monitoring systems can add confidence to parents worried about their baby sleeping in a different room. A good example of a baby monitor with heart rate monitoring is the Owlet Smart Sock that can track heart rate and blood oxygenation levels, and stream that information to an app on your smart phone. Of course, don't be too confident because these devices are not hospital- or laboratory-grade monitoring systems, so keep that in mind.
Encrypted Wireless Communications
Here's something creepy and strange - there are reports of people tapping into even the best baby monitors and getting some bizarre pleasure from watching your baby sleep or watching you feed the baby in the middle of the night. A few of the manufacturers have included wireless encryption on their systems to make this much less likely.
This is a tough one, as it requires long-term knowledge of system reliability, through thick and thin. There are many baby monitors on the market that start out excellent but tend to glitch out or completely fail within the first several months of ownership. This is especially the case for many unrecognized brand names that are saturating the market. If you're buying this as a baby registry gift the last thing you want to do is make the new parents think you cheaped out on a junky baby monitor! All of the best video monitors that make it onto our list have withstood the test of time, lasting at least 6 months, and in some cases several years at this point (like the Infant Optics option!). Another point about reliability that's worth mentioning is that most modern wifi baby monitors will keep a local connection to your app even when the internet is down. So as long as you're still in your house, you can continue streaming video even when the internet is down.