Pregnancy is a beautiful thing, right? That's what everyone says. But let's be real: It's tough. And stressful. And sometimes, a little scary. These days, though, you don't have to get by on reassurances from your mom and occasional visits to the doctor. You can find wearable devices designed for listening to your unborn child's heartbeat, talking to the baby-to-be, fending off morning sickness, monitoring contractions, and more.
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Before swiping your credit card, though, it's important to not only be sure it's a gadget you want, but to consider possible downsides--and to look for evidence supporting manufacturer claims. Just because a gadget asserts it can tell you your unborn child's future SAT scores, doesn't mean it really can. Trust us: There's a fair share of pseudo-science in the prenatal business. Look no further than the Mozart Effect, for example.
Here's an overview of the most intriguing pregnancy gadgets now available to expectant families. The technologies used are generally so one-of-a-kind that it's a good idea to reach out to manufacturers if you have any specific questions. That said, we've also weighed in with our skeptical viewpoint for products that seem a little too good to be true.
1. AngelSounds Fetal Doppler
Not so long ago, expectant families could only hear the sounds of fetal heartbeat in a doctor's office through the use of expensive sonogram equipment. Now, though, AngelSounds (and a crop of other DIY devices) are making it possible to hear that magic for most less money in the comfort of your own home.
Fair Haven Health's AngelSounds comes with everything you need to start listening to and sharing your baby's heartbeat starting in the 14th to 16th week of pregnancy, including the wearable itself, headphones, a recording cable, an instruction manual, and (completing the doctor's office ambiance) optional transducer gel.
You can record your child's heartbeat in MP3 or WAV format and email the track to your expectant grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins. After the baby is born, you might record the sounds of your own voice and those of loved ones for comforting playback to the newborn in the crib.
Like other fetal dopplers, AngelSounds uses doppler ultrasound tech, which both sends and receives sound waves. The sound waves bounce off of solid objects, including blood cells.
The use of doppler ultrasound by folks other than trained professionals has recently stirred some controversy, especially when it comes to frequent checks of fetal heartbeat. While many parents claim to have used the tech with absolutely no ill effects on their children, Internet scare stories abound.
Fair Haven Health has this to say: "Diagnostic ultrasound has been used successfully for about 30 years without any evidence of negative effect and has established itself in medicine. However, the available data is not final."
The company also notes that medical and scientific authorities advise the use of ultrasound diagnostics in pregnant women to be "not too long or intense."
The AngelSounds device sells for about $40.
2. Shell by Bellabeat
For families who want to hear the child's heartbeat without any possible ultrasonic risk, Bellabeat recently launched the Shell.
As its name implies, the Shell looks a little like a seashell. Unlike fetal dopplers, Shell does not send any sound waves into the mom's belly. The gadget merely listens to the baby's heartbeat when pressed on mom's baby bump. Both the gadget and the app uses an algorithm to screen out noise. The gadget, however, also amplifies the heartbeat for those listening in.
If you want to use Shell, though, you'll need to wait until 30 weeks into pregnancy to start hearing the beat. You should also be aware that Shell is touted as strictly not for medical use.
As with AngelSounds, you can grab recordings of the child's heartbeat to share with other loved ones.
The gadget lists for about $69, and the app is free.
Is it time to deliver yet? The new Bloomlife wearable is aimed at providing a "clinically valid second opinion" to help expectant mothers understand what contractions really feel like and to track contractions during the third trimester of pregnancy.
The device's manufacturer (also called Bloomlife), claims that Bloomlife automatically measures and times contractions--both Braxton Hicks and labor contractions--in real time by passively picking up electrical signals from the uterine muscle.
The company maintains that the gizmo is safe to use because it does not radiate any energy into the body to measure contractions, and it relies on Bluetooth Low Energy for communicating with an iPhone or Android phone. According to info on Bloomlife's website, Bluetooth LE does not penetrate the skin and its radio waves are about 100 times less powerful than those of a cell phone.
Bloomlife holds strategic partnerships with Stanford University researchers and with the Preterm Birth Initiative at the University of California San Francisco (UCSF).
Bloomlife is available for rental only, and pricing is based on monthly subscription charges.
4. Bio Bands
Pregnancy can bring many bright and happy moments. If you suffer from morning sickness, though, that certainly won't be one of them.
Bio Bands offers wristbands that are designed to alleviate nausea and vomiting prompted by morning sickness and other causes through the use of something called acupressure.
The adjustable band features a small bead positioned at a precise point known as the P-6 pressure point. When the band is tightened, constant pressure is applied to that point.
The company cites a number of clinical studies on its website showing that this approach actually does the job. While admitting that nobody really knows why the technology works, Bio Bands presents a couple of theories.
The first theory is that using an acupressure wristband interrupts the nervous system signals that bring about nausea symptoms in the body. The second theory is that continual pressure to the P-6 acupressure points causes the release of endorphin neurotransmitters, which behave as a natural painkiller within the body.
All that said, beware. Medical skeptic site Quackwatch warns that acupressure is unproven, dubious, and likely no more effective than placebo. In particular, it calls out the scientific studies had a significant likelihood of bias that tainted the results and conclusions. The bottom line: Tread carefully, as acupressure products could be little more than snake oil.
But if you're willing to give it a try, it's not expensive. Bio Bands retail for $12.
5. Baby Plus Prenatal Education System
The Baby Plus wearable comes with "audio lessons" intended to help your child start learning while still in the womb.
On its website, Baby Plus does present some impressive and increasingly well accepted clinical research indicating that children can start hearing the external environment and "forming memories" even prior to birth.
The website does not provide any clinical findings supporting the company's specific approach to educating unborn children, which involves strengthening cognitive processes by teaching children a particular series of lessons around differentiating among various natural sounds. And honestly, it sounds suspiciously like the widely discredited Mozart Effect. But it is different, and the jury is still out on the efficacy of this approach.
Moreover, the site is filled with testimonials from parents claiming that infants who used Baby Plus before birth turned out to be more responsive and self-soothing as infants, and that these kids reached developmental milestones at early ages later in life.
At $135 for this system, you be the judge.
Similarly, WavHello, manufacturer of BellyBuds, claims that a baby's hearing is fully developed at 20 weeks and memories begin at 30 weeks.
The BellyBuds system hinges on small speakers that attach to mom's belly. In the words of the company, expectant parents can then send "memory-sharing sounds" directly to the womb.
These sounds can consist of either music or the recorded words of the mother and other loved ones. The product also comes with an earphone splitter so that mother and baby can listen to the same sounds simultaneously. Pricing is about $50, but this product--and ones similar to it--are likely not operating on peer reviewed, credible science. We'd be wary.