By Linda Carroll
(Reuters Health) – A new wireless system for monitoring the vital signs of the most fragile newborns – those born prematurely or with debilitating diseases – could make it easier for parents to have skin to skin contact with their babies, a preliminary study suggests.
Infants in the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) typically have a large number of sensors attached to their skin, with wires emanating from them. The new system, which was tested in a study reported in Science, accomplishes monitoring through two ultrathin wireless sensors that transmit the baby’s vital signs to a base where the information can be processed in real time.
The sensors – one above the baby’s heart and the other on the infant’s heel – “are almost like an electronic temporary tattoo,” said study coauthor John Rogers, director of the Center for Bio-Integrated Electronics at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois. “They gently, non-invasively laminate onto the surface of the skin. They are imperceptible. You don’t even know they are there.”
Standard sensors can damage a premature baby’s skin, he added. “Premature babies, especially those at gestational ages less than 30 weeks, have skin that is highly underdeveloped, “Rogers said. “It’s very common that these babies receive injury to the skin when peeling away the tapes.”
Another advantage of the new system is that the sensors don’t need to be plugged in to a power source. They charge up in a similar way to some of the modern phones that charge wirelessly, Rogers said.
The baby just needs to be within a meter from the antenna that receives vital signs information and the device that allows the sensors to keep charged, Rogers said. That means “mothers can be sitting in a chair (with the antenna mounted on the base) and have skin to skin contact and cuddling,” he said.
Skin to skin cuddling of low-birthweight infants has been shown to reduce mortality, severe illness, infection and length of hospital stay. Cardiorespiratory stability, sleep quality, neurodevelopment, breastfeeding and pain also appear to be improved when preemies have skin to skin contact during their hospital stay.
The new system provides information on skin temperature, heart rate, respiration rate and blood oxygenation. And because the two sensors are sending data in real time, it’s possible to measure how quickly blood is flowing through the body, allowing doctors to calculate blood pressure, which is hard to measure in these tiny, fragile babies, Rogers said.
The new study is “fascinating,” said Dr. Katherine Hoops, an assistant professor of pediatric critical care medicine at Johns Hopkins Medicine. “Innovations in monitoring that facilitate mobility have great potential benefit.”
Among the advantages of this new system is that it allows the baby “to be moved around without any worries about wires,” said Dr. Rakesh Sahni, a professor of pediatrics at Columbia University Irving Medical Center and medical director of the NICU at the NewYork-Presbyterian Morgan Stanley Children’s Hospital. “And it allows the parents to hold their baby without worrying about whether the baby is still connected or if the wires are coming off.”
While calling the new system is “a really important step in improving care for our patient population,” Dr. Thomas Diacovo predicted that when it becomes available, not many hospitals would use it right away because of the cost. But there is one setting in which it could be implemented immediately, said Diacovo, chief of the newborn medicine program at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center.
“It would have tremendous value when you go on transport,” Diacovo said. Currently “you have to take a lot of equipment to a potentially remote location and hook the baby up to various monitors. This sort of wireless system where information can be transmitted back to the home hospital could have tremendous value.”
(This story was refiled to correct spelling of Dr. Sahni’s name in paragraph 10.)