A team from Northwestern University has created a body sensor to help monitor babies in neonatal intensive care units (NiCU). The sensors are wireless, soft and flexible and have an advantage due to replacing other sensors that rely on wires to function. The sensors could be put to use in hospitals within the next two to three years.


Studies on premature babies were collected at Prentice Women's Hospital and the Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children's Hospital in Chicago. They found that newly developed wireless sensors provide more precise and accurate data than conventional monitoring systems. Wireless patches that are placed on a newborn are also gentle on their skin and allows more physical contact with the parents. The study contains data from over 20 babies who wore the wireless sensors along with conventional monitoring systems, allowing researchers to compare results from both systems. Overall, the team has done additional testing on over 70 babies in the NICU. By using wireless sensors instead of wires and aggressive adhesives that are used with hardware systems, the team was able to create something much safer for babies and more compatible for parental interactions with their child. Advanced measurements are also collected to help monitor the babies health.


Typically, wires that surround newborn babies in the NICU are larger than the babies. Around five or six wires connect electrodes on a baby to monitors. They are meant to track breathing, blood pressure, blood oxygen, heartbeat levels and more. Even though these wires are safe and are used for health monitoring, they limit the baby's movements and create a barrier for bonding in the babies development stages. Human contact via bonding with newborns is essentially important to sick or premature babies. It generally helps to decrease risk of pulmonary complications, liver issues and infections.


The dual sensors: Chest sensor (left) and foot sensor (right) are very lightweight. (Image Credit: Northwestern University)

The new technology measures more than what's found in traditional monitoring systems. Dual wireless sensors monitor the babies' vital signs, all of which includes their heart rate, respiration rate and body temperature, all from both ends of the baby. One sensor is placed across the baby's chest or back, measured at 5 centimetres by 2.5 centimetres, and the other goes around the foot, measured at 2.5 centimetres by 2 centimetres. The placement and size of the sensors allow physicians to collect the core and body temperature from a peripheral region of an infant. Measuring the temperatures between the foot and chest have a high amount of importance when determining blood flow and heart function, which isn't measured these days.


Foot sensor as shown in the image makes it safer than traditional monitoring systems. (Image Credit: Northwestern University)

Physicians will also be able to measure blood pressure levels by tracking when the pulse leaves the heart and arrives in the foot. There doesn't seem to be a safe and healthy way to collect and measure a baby's blood pressure especially when a cuff can cause bruising on a newborn's skin. An alternative to this is to use a catheter by inserting it into an artery. However, this also isn't safe because of the small size of blood vessels found in the newborn baby. It also increases the risk of infection, clotting and death. Sticky tape that is also used to attached wires to the body can also cause damage through irritation, blisters and infection.


The wireless sensors also allow physicians to monitor an infant's vital signs when being held by their parents, allowing them to gather information on the effects of physical contact and the role it plays on their health. The sensors can also be worn during X-rays, MRIs and CT scans due to its transparency with imaging.


From the 70 babies in the NICU the team has studied, none of them has suffered any damage from the sensors. This is because of the sensors lightweight design, thin geometry and soft mechanics. It's made of bio-compatible, soft elastic silicone that attaches a set of tiny electronic components connected with spring-like wires that can move and flex with the body.


Communication from the sensor is achieved through a transmitter attached to the underside of the crib's mattress. It uses radio frequencies that are the same strength as the ones found in RFID tags. The antenna transfers data to on-screen displays at the nurses' station. The sensors can be cleaned and used again, but it can also be discarded after 24 hours and be easily replaced to eliminate the risk of infection.


The sensors could also appear in U.S. hospitals within two to three years. In addition to that, the device could be sent to tens of thousands of families in countries undergoing development over the next year as part of international efforts.


Have a story tip? Message me at: cabe(at)element14(dot)com