Around 12% of all babies are born prematurely, which is defined as before the 37th week of pregnancy. Thankfully, the latest medical technology in the world means that the vast majority of premature babies, even those born as much as 3 months early, now survive and increasingly without complications. Most premature babies, around 8% of that 12%, arrive into the world at between 34 and 36 weeks.
However, 1.5% and 2% are respectively born at between 32 and 33 weeks and at under 32 weeks. Babies born between 1 and 3 months prematurely unfortunately have to spend some time in the hospital after birth. The more premature the birth the longer in most cases. For the parents of these tiny creatures, the hardest part is not being able to have them at home and having to make daily trips to the hospital to visit and bond.
A large part of the mother-baby, and also father-baby, bonding process comes through physical closeness. A baby gets used to the smell and feel of its mother and father by being fed held and cuddled. Unfortunately, the wires that surround newborns held in neonatal intensive care units, as well as the adhesives used to stick monitoring sensors to the skin, represent a significant barrier to that physical bonding process. As well as the practical importance to bonding of parents being able to cuddle newborns, not being able to do so is a huge emotional strain on new parents.
Technology developments now, however, look set to change that. A research team at Illinois’s Northwestern University have developed lightweight and wireless versions of the sensors used to monitor premature babies.
All of the sensors needed to keep an eye on a baby’s vital signs have been successfully incorporated into just two pads that resemble sticking plasters. But unlike using adhesives that can break the delicate skin of a premature baby if tugged in the wrong way, the pads are held in place by only electrostatic. Babies can move more freely and can also be held and cuddled by their mother and father comfortably and without the risk of tangling wire or yanking adhesives.
The tech actually attached to the baby has been able to be reduced so much by having a separate transmitter. This sits under the baby’s mattress and communicates with the sensors by radiowaves. It’s the same technology as contactless cards use. The transmitter collects the data from the baby’s vital signs and sends it to the nursing station, which will sound the alarm if anything concerning changes.
The new sensor tech is also commercially viable with the pads costing just £8 per set. That means while they can be sterilised and reused if need be they are also cheap enough to be replaceable every 24 hours to further eliminate any risk of infection.
The study team’s lead author, John A Rodgers, commented:
“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.”
Premature and sick baby charities and support groups have responded to the development with huge positivity. Caroline Lee-Davey, chief executive of the charity bliss immediately called for the new technology to be introduced by the NHS, referring to it as “truly game changing”.