For new parents, putting their baby down to sleep can be a scary thing. Sudden infant death syndrome is the leading cause of death in infants 1 to 12 months old, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, so it's no surprise that parents of newborns are often ridden with anxiety.
Video monitors can help, but a new generation of technology goes one step further. Owlet Baby Monitors uses pulse oximetry — a technology used in hospitals to measure an infant's heart rate and blood oxygen levels — and then streams the information to the parent's smartphone. The miniature, wireless sensor goes into a baby sock that can be worn up to 18 months. The sock sets off an alarm on a base station and flashes a red light if the baby's vital signs are in dangerously territory.
Amy Bongard, a mother of four, is certain the Owlet has saved her newborn's life. Her youngest son, Grayson, was born three weeks early and one day when he had just finished breast-feeding, she looked down and noticed that he wasn't breathing.
"I picked him up just to see if a startle reflex would kick in, which it usually would, but his head was kind of cocked to the side and his arms and legs were really limp and he wouldn't move," Bongard said. "Finally after pushing on his chest about 20-25 times I got him to open his eyes and become alert again. I had to watch him the rest of the night."
She knew that she wouldn't sleep for months unless she got some help, and after doing some research on other monitors, she ended up purchasing an Owlet for $250. While some parents never see the red alert, for Bongard, the alarm has already gone off four times.
"I was sleeping when the first alarm went off," Bongard said. "I had to shake him a little bit to get him to open his eyes and to get that startle reflex to sink in. I was really grateful that it went off and I was able to make sure he was OK."
Breathing issues for premature babies are fairly common. Preterm birth affects about 1 of every 10 infants born in the United States, according to the CDC and preterm birth is the greatest contributor to infant death. This was one of the reasons why Kurt Workman co-founded the company when he was 25 years old. He had witnessed his exhausted aunt staying up through the night to watch her premature twins. He knew of the $2,000 pulse oximeters that were used in hospital intensive care units on babies.
"Our goal was let's make this home appropriate and let's make it really easy for parents to use so it actually gives reassurance at an affordable price point," said Workman, who is also Owlet's CEO.
After years of research and development, the Provo, Utah-based company launched the product last October. Workman says the company has sold 40,000 monitors since then.
He said 80 percent of their customers are first-time parents with healthy children who just want that extra peace of mind.
"We've had 26 families now where the Owlet has been able to actually alert parents in life-threatening situations," Workman said.
There are many other monitors on the market as well that give parents a peace of mind. Snuza, Mimo and Angelcare are a few that monitor baby movement and breathing. But for Dr. Milena Adamian, who has been in health care for 20 years, Owlet is one of the most promising.
"How Owlet stood out for me," said Adamian, managing partner of Azimuth Ventures and one of the early investors in Owlet, "is that they were solving an incredibly needed problem that was addressing two markets — the consumers market and the health-care professionals market."
Owlet is in the process of getting FDA approval to be used in clinical settings as well. It cannot yet claim to help prevent SIDS, but the company is working on it. The monitor collects a baby's vitals every two seconds and it is stored in the cloud. Parents can opt in to have that information shared with researchers.
"We're collecting more data every night than has ever been collected on infant health and we can imagine that that will have some sort of impact on SIDS," Workman said. "We want to get that data into the hands of researchers and physicians to start doing early detection."
Some critics claim that these monitors give parents a false sense of security and that they could add more anxiety if false alarms go off. But for mothers like Amy Bongard, this smart sock has provided her some much-needed rest.
"I sleep much better now and there's definitely a peace of mind," Bongard said. "When I put that little sock on, I know he's going to be OK."
Owlet has raised $8 million from investors including Eclipse, Carpe Diem VC, Azimuth Ventures and Eniac Ventures as well as participation from Blake Mycoskie, founder of Toms Shoes. Owlet also received a $1.5 million grant from the National Institutes of Health.
Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated the name of one of Owlet's investors.