A team of researchers from Northwestern University designed a new wireless sensor for neonatal babies that can track vitals.

Researchers at Northwestern University have developed a new wearable sensor for newborns that is being pitched as an alternative to the traditional wire technology, which can prevent babies from being held. 

The system’s two sensors also work differently than the wire sensors. One attaches to the baby’s chest and the other to the baby’s foot, allowing clinicians to have a view of opposite ends of the baby’s body. 

The soft and flexible sensors are able to track heart rate, respiration rate, core body temperature and blood oxygen levels similarly to traditional systems. But in addition to these capabilities, this sensors can track peripheral body temperature, blood pressure, blood flow and vitals during parent-baby interactions

The technology was tested and described in detail in a small feasiblity study published in Science. Researchers used the sensors on a small number of neonates from 28 weeks to full term and found the sensors could successfully measure vital signs and not damage the skin. 

Why it matters

The team is pitching this technology as a fix for a multiple problems. The first is that the wire technology can prevent infants in the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) from being held like other babies. 

“We wanted to eliminate the rat’s nest of wires and aggressive adhesives associated with existing hardware systems and replace them with something safer, more patient-centric and more compatible with parent-child interaction,” John A. Rogers, a bio-electronics pioneer, who led the technology development, said in a statement. “We were able to reproduce all of the functionality that current wire-based sensors provide with clinical-grade precision. 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.”

Secondly, the sensors were designed with the baby’s delicate skin in mind. Each one is about the weight of “a raindrop,” according to a press release. Researchers noted that adhesives, which are used as the standard of care, can cause irritation or scarring. The study showed these new sensors were less harmful to the skin compared to traditional methods. 

“The thin, lightweight, low-modulus characteristics of these wireless devices allow for interfaces to the skin mediated by forces that are nearly an order of magnitude smaller than those associated with adhesives used for conventional hardware in the NICU,” researchers wrote in the study. “This reduction greatly lowers the potential for iatrogenic injuries.”

“Premature babies’ skin is not fully developed, so it’s incredibly fragile,” Paller said. “In fact, the thickness of the skin in premature infants is about 40 percent reduced. The more premature you get, the more fragile the skin becomes. That means we have to be very careful.”


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