Peek into any U.S. hospital’s neonatal intensive care unit (NICU). You’ll see sick and premature newborns covered in sticky wires. The adhesives tear at fragile skin and the strands restrict parents from touching and cuddling their tiny babies.
But a new skin-like wireless sensor may solve both problems of damage and distance for these delicate little people.
“This need was so compelling,” says John Rogers, a Northwestern University bioengineer leading the sensors’ development. “Without the wires, it’s much easier for the parents . . . to interact and hold their babies.”
Healthcare providers must track the vital signs of these small and often sick babies. Heart rate, blood pressure, and body temperature are key indicators of health. Small variations can have negative effects quickly. So today, most of the nearly 300,000 newborns in U.S. NICUs will be pasted all over with sticky electrodes tethered to beeping monitors. Many babies also must stay in heated beds instead of snuggled against Mom or Dad’s warm skin. When they are picked up, the tangle of wires prevents close contact. Tension on a wire can cause a sensor to peel away—potentially damaging tender, undeveloped skin and losing contact needed to track the signs of wellbeing.
Going wireless in the NICU is harder than, say, measuring a jogger’s heart rate with a FitBit. It’s also a lot more important to get it right.
Rogers’ team first developed ultrathin sensors from flexible, waterproof, skin-like silicone. The silicone clings without strong adhesive. It doesn’t interfere with X-rays or MRI scans. The new invention is lightweight too, thanks to wireless charging transmitters that hide under crib mattresses. The same transmitters send all sensor measurements directly to hospital computers.
Just two wireless sensors replaces today’s multiple monitors. One goes on the chest or back and the other wraps around a foot. The two work together. The torso sensor measures heart activity while the foot sensor checks blood oxygen levels. The time it takes a pulse to reach the foot corresponds to blood pressure, says Rogers. That means baby no longer needs an arm-squeezing blood pressure cuff. Even that contact can bruise itty-bitty babies’ limbs.
In a test on 20 NICU babies, the wireless option worked as well as conventional wired ones. Remarkably, the wireless sensors are also inexpensive—Rogers estimates less than $15 each. That makes the new technology promising for bringing life-saving care to areas that just can’t afford today’s costly wired monitoring for preemies.
“Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.” — Matthew 25:40