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Stick-on sensors will let premature babies get the skin contact they need

Babies born too soon have to be closely monitored, but all that equipment stops parents from getting close. A new wireless sensor could help.
February 28, 2019
Northwestern University

More than one in 10 babies are born too early. Small and fragile, they often need to be kept warm and monitored closely, usually in a hospital incubator.

It’s a sight that pulls at the heartstrings: a tiny premature baby in a nest of wires, surrounded by equipment. But a new monitoring system could make those wires redundant. It relies on two ultra-thin patches, measuring just a few centimeters across, that are attached to the baby’s chest and foot.

The devices, developed by an interdisciplinary team from Northwestern University, look like clear Band-Aids and contain sensors that track all the baby’s vital signs. They form the first neonatal monitoring system that doesn’t require any wires or batteries.

All this data can be collected and processed onboard, thanks to tiny embedded near-field communication chips, before being sent to external devices via Bluetooth. The sensors rely on wireless power transfer to stay charged.

The system has already been tested on more than 60 babies at two hospitals in Chicago. They wore the sensors alongside traditional monitoring systems, so a side-by-side comparison could be carried out. The wireless system provided the same functionality and equally precise and accurate data, according to a paper in Science today.

In fact, it may allow even more precise monitoring than current systems, says John Rogers, who led the engineering side. That’s because the patches are less likely to induce artifacts in the data that can be caused by the wires being tugged as the baby moves.

The lack of wires will also make it much easier to feed and clean the babies, but most important, it will enable skin-to-skin contact with parents, which a growing body of evidence shows is hugely beneficial for baby and parent alike.

“Imagine a critically ill newborn, and their lungs and heart don’t work well. Imagine a drug that stabilized them, improved their heart rate, increased feeding, and reduced hospitalization, with zero cost or side effects. That is skin-to-skin contact,” says Steve Xu, a dermatologist who was on the research team.

Another factor was the need to reduce skin injuries, which premature babies often suffer because of the strong adhesives used to keep wires and equipment in place.

“Up to 15% of their entire skin is traumatized every day from this equipment. This technology is so much safer for these babies,” Xu says.

The team has secured funding from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to start deploying the technology in Zambia starting in April. While beneficial in countries where incubators are widely available in hospitals, the sensors could be truly transformative in countries where they aren’t, Rogers says. There, the skin-to-skin contact they make possible could help stabilize the baby’s temperature.

By the end of the year, he hopes, the sensors will have been used for 20,000 premature babies in Zambia, helping to further refine the system—and, more important, potentially save lives.

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