Wireless Sensors Advance Care for NICU Babies
After an emergency C-section, Taschana Taylor’s daughter Grace was rushed to the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) at Lurie Children’s where she remained for three weeks. Desperate to bond with their new baby, Taylor and her husband felt exhausted when navigating the wires to provide Grace with the most basic care.
“Trying to feed her, change her, swaddle her, hold her and move around with her with the wires was difficult,” Taylor said. “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.”
To allow physical bonding between baby and parent which is so important, Northwestern University developed a pair of soft, flexible wireless sensors that replace the tangle of wire-based sensors that currently monitor babies in hospitals’ NICUs and pose a barrier to parent-baby cuddling and physical bonding.
The team recently completed a series of first human studies on premature babies at Prentice Women’s Hospital and Lurie Children’s. The researchers concluded that the wireless sensors provided data as precise and accurate as that from traditional monitoring systems. The wireless patches also are gentler on a newborn’s fragile skin and allow for more skin-to-skin contact with the parent. Existing sensors must be attached with adhesives that can scar and blister premature newborns’ skin.
“The gyrations that parents and nurses have to go through just to take the baby out of the crib are astounding,” said co-author Dr. Aaron Hamvas, Division Head of Neonatology at Lurie Children’s. “Wires are going up to the monitor, down to the baby, maybe going through holes in an incubator,” Hamvas said. “Nurses and parents try to get the babies all bundled, so they don’t accidentally pull anything off them or out of the wall. It’s very, very cumbersome and stressful. If the baby were totally unencumbered, it would be tremendously more efficient and less prone to problems.”
The mass of wires that surround newborns in the NICU are often bigger than the babies themselves. Typically, five or six wires connect electrodes on each baby to monitors for breathing, blood pressure, blood oxygen, heartbeat and more. Although these wires ensure health and safety, they constrain the baby’s movements and pose a major barrier to physical bonding during a critical period of development.
“We know that skin-to-skin contact is so important for newborns — especially those who are sick or premature,” said Dr. Amy Paller, a pediatric dermatologist at Lurie Children’s and one of the leading investigators. “It’s been shown to decrease the risk of pulmonary complications, liver issues and infections. Yet, when you have wires everywhere and the baby is tethered to a bed, it’s really hard to make skin-to-skin contact.”
“Anybody who has had the experience of entering a NICU immediately notices how tiny the babies are, and how many wires and electrodes are attached to them,” said co-author Dr. Debra Weese-Mayer, Chief of Pediatric Autonomic Medicine at Lurie Children’s. “The opportunity to go wireless has enormous potential for decreasing the burden for the nurses, for the babies and for the parents.”
The dual wireless sensors monitor babies’ vital signs — heart rate, respiration rate and body temperature — from opposite ends of the body. One sensor lays across the baby’s chest or back, while the other sensor wraps around a foot. (The chest sensor measures 5 centimeters by 2.5 centimeters; the foot sensor is 2.5 centimeters by 2 centimeters. Each sensor weighs about the same as a raindrop.) This strategy allows physicians to gather an infant’s core temperature as well as body temperature from a peripheral region.