Wireless Sensors Allow Skin-To-Skin Contact With Babies In NICU

Premature newborns in the NICU require a variety sensors that can often be damaging to the infants’ skin. The devices used to measure a newborn’s heart rate, breathing rate and other vital signs require electrodes that must be glued to the skin, which can result in pain and scarring. The wires also inhibit skin-to-skin contact, which is essential for healthy development.

Now, researchers at Northwestern University have designed wireless soft, ultra-thin, adaptable skin-like sensors that minimize the need for attachments. Unveiled last week in Science, the sensors are placed on the baby’s chest and on their foot. The data the sensors transmit via near-field communication eliminate the need for the traditional five or more wire setup.

According to Dr. Amy Paller, chair of the dermatology department and a pediatrics professor at the Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine, who is one of the study authors, “If you've ever been in a neonatal intensive care unit, you know that these babies are just covered with a mass of wires. It's very hard to turn the babies, to hold the babies, to have the close contact with the babies… (so) one of the beauties of having a wireless system is you can continue to have that accurate monitoring, and yet the baby can be moved in any which way.”

Skin-to-skin contact is vital to establish a psychological and physical bond between a parent and a child and reduces the risk of infectious disease and of liver and lung problems, Paller said.

The sensors have been used on more than 80 babies so far. Initial results show the new sensors work just like the traditional monitoring systems, and also keep track of temperature and blood pressure. Taschana Taylor, whose daughter is at the NICU at Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children's Hospital of Chicago, said the new sensors made a world of difference.

“Trying to feed her, change her, swaddle her, hold her, move around with her with the wires was a little contained because we had like a 3-foot radius to be with her,” Taylor said. “So we’re really excited about the wireless. In theory, if she didn’t have the wires on her, maybe we could go for a walk around the room… it would just make the entire experience more enjoyable and more bonding with her.”

The new technology protects an infant’s fragile skin, which is thinner and breaks more easily. Nearly 45 percent of newborns suffer from “skin breakdown” in the hospital as a result of medical devices attached with adhesives, which much be changed repeatedly, the researchers said in the study. Ninety percent of premature newborns, who have spent time in the NICU, show scars by the age of 7.

The new sensors “softly laminate” on an infant’s skin, said John Rogers, one of the study authors and professor of materials science and engineering, biomedical engineering and neurological surgery at Northwestern University. “They can adhere much more weakly, but still robustly, to the surface of the skin, thereby avoiding the risk of skin injury that often happens with the kinds of tapes that are adhering conventional sensors,” he added.

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The weight and mass of the wires disappears, so newborns can move more freely, making it easier for nurses to clean and interact with the infants. The new sensors will also help monitor burn victims as well as adults in intensive care units. They can also be used in outpatient care when patients need to have chronic illnesses monitored remotely since the wireless sensors can be observed by phone, Paller said.

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