Just a couple of studies have aimed at defining the potential benefits of smartwatches for pregnant women and the risks they could potentially carry. In 2019, the team of Pr Grym published a feasibility study on the use of wristbands for continuous monitoring during pregnancy. The results were reported as good.
Also, in 2015, Pr Huberty was one of the first to use smartwatches to track the physical activities of pregnant women. The study detected, without surprise, that women tend to be less active during the third trimester and that the use of fitness trackers could help them improve their activity levels.
Nowadays, smartwatches are real health powerhouses and go far beyond just counting the daily number of daily steps. Pregnancy comes with numerous hormonal changes that can potentially enhance pre-existing medical conditions. Therefore, carefully monitoring nutrition and other vitals such as Blood Pressure or Heart Rhythms are critical.
Smartwatches can change the way women envisage the development of the new life they carry and make the necessary behavioral changes to ensure a healthy pregnancy. In a study conducted by Pr Runkle, 7 out of 10 women express willingness to change their behavior according to the results obtained from activity tracking.
In this article, what wearables have to offer to pregnant women during and after delivery and if they carry potential risks for the baby.
What are the benefits of fitness trackers during pregnancy?
Monitoring Baby Heart on a continuous basis
Fetal heart monitoring ranked as the number one feature future mothers were willing to use. But, interestingly, physicians considered blood pressure monitoring as their main priority when using wearable technology.
Sense4Baby is not new and allows to monitor fetal heart rate using sensors attached to the mother’s belly. The fetus heart rate data is streamed directly to the Apple Watch and shared with your OB/GYN.
However, in a recent article, we described that even if such technology can be helpful, wearable sensors can also provide a false sense of reinsurance to the mother, leading to not consulting a physician with sometimes dramatic consequences.
Continuous blood pressure tracking
For women with high blood pressure-associated risks, monitoring blood pressure during pregnancy can be a lifesaver. Conversely, low blood pressure episodes are common while being pregnant. A smartwatch with blood pressure functionalities has the potential to inform the user in case an episode occurs.
It provides real-life data to the physician to adapt the treatment. However, one of the limitations may be linked to the limited number of accurate and reliable blood pressure watches.
At the exception of the Omron Heartguide, none of the wearables are FDA-Cleared, and the need for rigorous calibration can become daunting. Yet, things may change in the future with the development of Aktiia, a blood pressure bracelet that aims at providing continuous blood pressure monitoring.
The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists recommend healthy pregnant women to exercise for at least 150 minutes per week. In addition, moderate-intensity aerobic activities such as walking or gardening can reduce back pain, reduce the risks of gestational diabetes and help lose the additional weight gained during the pregnancy.
Activity trackers or fitness bands are likely the perfect devices to keep track of activity levels and stick to a schedule while being pregnant.
In 2017, the Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH) introduced a dedicated iPhone app called MGH Perinatal Depression Scale. Unfortunately, postpartum depression often remains undiagnosed even though 10-15% of women may suffer from this disorder.
The App. consists of questionnaires that help new mothers evaluate their stress levels and mental states. At the University of Austin, Pr Kaya de Barbara, a cognitive neuroscientist and mother of two, is currently developing a wearable sensor dedicated to detecting mood disorders in new mothers.
The Fitbit Sense uses an Electrodermal Sensor (EDA) to analyze stress levels continuously. Even though, to our knowledge, no specific study has been conducted to analyze the benefits of such technology in assessing post-partum depression, the benefits could be huge in the detection and treatment of this frequent and widely undiagnosed mental health disorder.
The smartwatches data is in line with the results obtained in 2015 by the Pr Naslund study on the “Feasibility of Popular m-Health Technologies for activity tracking among individuals with serious mental illness.”
What are the drawbacks of using a smartwatch while pregnant?
Exposure to Bluetooth and Microwaves
There is no easy answer to this question as studies are still ongoing. However, the main potential issue relates to exposure to Bluetooth.
As for smartphones, no specific guidelines exist regarding the safe levels of exposure of the fetus to radio waves. In addition, studies on the long-term effects of Microwave Radiation (MWR) have mainly been inconclusive, even though some showed that the bone marrow of children absorbs up to 10 times more waves than adults.
Recording and sharing health-related data carry many potential privacy issues, especially with the rise of healthcare cyber attacks.
False sense of security
As we mentioned previously, the dark side of collecting health data is that it can provide a false sense of security to expecting mothers. Even if they are FDA cleared, smartwatches are not medical devices, and the most powerful artificial intelligence algorithm will never replace the experience of a qualified OB/GYN. Therefore, always consider the information provided with a grain of skepticism, and when in doubt, consult your physician.
What wearable tech makers offer pregnancy monitoring features?
Even though fitness trackers are designed to analyze activity, few of them come with features specifically developed for expecting women. Garmin is the exception and developed specifically an app that connects to the wearables to follow up pregnancy and provides personalized advice during the different phases of the development of the embryo.
On November 10, 2020, Garmin announced a dedicated app for Maker compatible smartwatches, including Garmin Venu, vívoactive, Forerunner, and Fenix. The feature offers the ability to follow the pregnancy week after week, and the data synchronize with the user’s Garmin Connect account.
More than just an activity tracking add-on, the app. allows to enter baby’s movements and enter symptoms or contractions manually. It is also possible to change the users’ heart rate alerts and daily hydration goals.
More than focusing on the baby, the App. makes the most of Garmin’s smartwatch to give a holistic view of the pregnancy. The associated database contains 30 symptoms to keep track of and share with your physician.
Interestingly, the dedicated app. also offers educational content on the week-by-week development of the fetus and how pregnancy affects performance, wellness, and nutrition.