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Improved Wireless Sensors to Monitor Babies in Neonatal Intensive Care

March 11, 2020

Battery-charged, soft and flexible wireless sensors collect more clinical data than traditional devices, while allowing parents more skin-to-skin contact with their newborns

An interdisciplinary team from Northwestern University and Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago tested the newest version of wireless sensors first introduced a year ago to replace the tangle of wire-based monitoring devices that surround babies in neonatal and pediatric intensive care units (NICUs; PICUs). The refined technology added even more validated capabilities that go beyond traditional monitors – measures of blood pressure, crying, movement, body position and sounds including heartbeat. Their findings were published today in Nature Medicine.

“The new technology represents a monumental advance in neonatal care,” says one of the three senior authors Debra E Weese-Mayer, MD, Chief of Pediatric Autonomic Medicine at Lurie Children’s and Professor of Pediatrics (Critical Care) at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine. “This phase of introducing wireless wearable technology involves thinking expansively about what non-traditional variables we need to incorporate to more fully monitor health and ensure stability of premature infants.  Successfully introducing our wireless wearable sensors in the most vulnerable of the premature infants offers a new level of precision medicine with attendant sensitivity to the infant and parent comfort and safety.” Dr. Weese-Mayer is the Beatrice Cummings Mayer Professor in Pediatric Autonomic Medicine at Feinberg.

“Now we can monitor the baby’s position and sounds, in addition to the typical vital signs,” says co-author Aaron Hamvas, MD, Division Head of Neonatology at Lurie Children’s and Professor of Pediatrics (Neonatology) at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine. “These new measures allow us to evaluate clinically important factors, from sleep quality to swallowing dysfunction to coughing, and enable earlier intervention in response to signs of the baby’s distress. The continuous, high quality monitoring that these sensors provide also could speed diagnosis of many common complications, such as sepsis, seizures and apnea.” Dr. Hamvas holds the Raymond & Hazel Speck Berry Board Designated Professorship in Neonatology at Lurie Children’s.

The improved sensor patches are now battery-charged, which provides a more reliable signal than the earlier bluetooth devices and allows clinical measurements at greater distances, carrying the potential for in-home monitoring after infants are discharged from the hospital. The current publication, however, only describes pilot studies with 50 premature babies treated in the NICUs of Prentice Women’s Hospital and Lurie Children’s. The in-home monitoring, in-PICU monitoring, and other functions will be tested in future studies.

The newest iteration of wireless sensors continues to be safe on the preemies’ fragile skin. This is another benefit over the traditional monitoring technology that uses sticky tape to adhere the wires to the body, which can cause skin irritation or blisters.

“Premature babies’ skin is not fully developed, so it’s incredibly fragile,” says co-author Amy Paller, MD, pediatric dermatologist at Lurie Children’s and Chair of Dermatology at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine. “The more premature babies are, the more fragile their skin, especially in their first weeks of life. In future studies we hope to determine if the wireless sensor patches are also safe for the skin in the youngest of the premature infants.” Dr. Paller is the Walter J. Hamlin Professor of Dermatology and Professor of Pediatrics at Feinberg.

One of the major benefits of wireless sensors for NICU babies is the ease of skin-to-skin contact between parents and babies. With traditional sensors, the mass of wires that surround the newborns in the NICU is often bigger than the babies themselves, and it poses a significant barrier to skin-to-skin contact. This physical bonding, also called “kangaroo care”, is critical to premature newborns’ health. It has been shown to increase weight gain, speed discharge from the hospital, and decrease the risk of pulmonary complications, liver issues, and infections.

The new wireless sensors will need to receive FDA approval before they can become the standard of care in NICUs across the country. The team also expects to send these sensors to hospitals around the world as part of an ongoing international effort to improve affordable healthcare monitoring.

Research at Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago is conducted through the Stanley Manne Children’s Research Institute. The Manne Research Institute is focused on improving child health, transforming pediatric medicine and ensuring healthier futures through the relentless pursuit of knowledge. Lurie Children’s is ranked as one of the nation’s top children’s hospitals by U.S. News & World Report. It is the pediatric training ground for Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine. Last year, the hospital served more than 220,000 children from 48 states and 49 countries.