Tiny premature babies are often swamped by the sensors that monitor their health, attached to a mass of wires sometimes bigger than the newborns themselves.
These bundles of wired sensors can impede the baby's medical care, damage their fragile skin with adhesive patches, and prevent parents from nurturing their newborn.
Wireless sensor system
New mother Taschana Taylor is all too familiar with that frustration. Following an emergency C-section, her newborn daughter, Grace, was in the newborn intensive care unit (NICU) for three weeks. Desperate to hold Grace in their arms, Taylor and her husband found navigating the cumbersome wires exhausting.
"Trying to feed her, change her, swaddle her, hold her and move around with her with the wires was difficult," Taylor said in a Northwestern University news release. "If she didn't have wires on her, we could go for a walk around the room together. It would have made the entire experience more enjoyable."
Now, a Northwestern research team might change all of that: They have developed a wireless sensor system that uses Bluetooth technology to gather medical data on premature babies as precise and accurate as that from traditional monitors. Grace was among a group of babies who participated in a study of the new system.
Changing preemie care
Two lightweight, wireless patches affixed to the baby's chest and foot continually gather a broad array of health data, including temperature, respiratory rate, EKG, oxygen saturation and blood pressure, said Dr Amy Paller. She is chair of dermatology at the Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine in Chicago.
Each sensor weighs about as much as a raindrop, the researchers said.
The patches are flexible and gentler on a newborn's skin, and allow for more physical contact between parents and child, Paller said.
"There is just growing incontrovertible evidence that skin-to-skin contact is really important for these developing babies," Paller said.
"It's that bonding, it's that psychological connection, but there are many studies now that have shown being able to hold the baby skin-against-skin reduces mortality, reduces infections and sepsis, allows for better weight gain, and decreases risk of pulmonary disease," she noted.
"It is very, very exciting to think we could substitute the wires for the wireless, and allow for that," Paller noted.
The wireless monitoring system has been tested on as many as 90 babies at Northwestern-affiliated hospitals, and has proven "really quite accurate, with absolutely no side effects seen", Paller said.
System to debut in developing nations
These sensors could appear in American hospitals within the next two to three years, pending approval by the US Food and Drug Administration, said John Rogers, a professor of biomedical engineering at Northwestern's McCormick School of Engineering.
About 20 000 of the sensors will appear sooner than that in medically underserved nations like Zambia, Pakistan and India, as part of an effort funded by the Gates Foundation and the Save the Children Foundation, Rogers and Paller said.
The wireless system could be in use in Zambia by April, Paller said.
"These are less costly by a landslide compared to the types of systems that are being used right now, since you can link them up with a phone," Paller explained.
Approximately 300 000 premature babies are delivered each year in the United States, and a large fraction of them have exceptionally fragile health due to low birth weight and severe prematurity, researchers explained in background notes.
Current monitoring systems typically require five or six wires that run to electrodes adhered to a newborn's skin, researchers said.
Adhesives can scar and blister the underdeveloped skin of a preemie, and the wires tug in ways that can tear the baby's skin, Paller said.
For five years, researchers have been working to miniaturize the technology found in consumer gadgets like Fitbits and smartphones, so it could be placed in a skin-soft flexible patch, Rogers said.
"We were able to reproduce all of the functionality that current wire-based sensors provide with clinical-grade precision," Rogers said. "Our wireless, battery-free, skin-like devices give up nothing in terms of range of measurement, accuracy and precision – and they even provide advanced measurements that are clinically important but not commonly collected."
The two wireless sensors monitor baby's vital signs from opposite ends of the body.
The chest sensor tracks temperature, respiratory rate and heart rate, Paller said. The foot sensor measures the oxygen saturation of the blood and blood pressure.
The wireless monitoring system could tremendously help doctors care for premature babies in a NICU, said Dr Hany Aly, chair of neonatology at Cleveland Clinic Children's Hospital.
About 15% of babies admitted to a NICU will have some developmental delay or learning disability by school age, said Aly, who wasn't involved in the research.
"This problem is unexplained by any physical problem with the brain, so we relate this problem mainly to the environment," he said.
Doctors suspect the loud noise, sharp light and constant handling of the babies in a NICU create constant stress that can affect their future development, Aly said.
"If we can try to mimic the womb, then these babies supposedly will develop normally outside the womb as they would inside the womb," he said.
This wireless system could help keep the environment quiet and reduce the amount of fussing around with wires that occurs any time the newborn needs to be moved for a test or a procedure, Aly said.
He agreed that it also would allow for beneficial physical contact between parents and child.
"The skin-to-skin aspect of it has a healing power," Aly said. "We're not 100% sure of the mechanism, but we have enough abundance of studies showing that touching the baby or performing massage on the skin of the baby has effects on the baby's heart rate and growth."
These monitors also have great potential to help just about anyone who needs monitoring of their vital signs, Paller added.
"Anybody who has a cellphone could theoretically use it," Paller said. "This is something that can be sent home with a patient who's seen a doctor, and monitoring can continue without having to physically come in. It has great potential for very broad use."
A report on the system was published in the journal Science.
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