Monitoring newborn babies with wireless sensors

Northwestern U develops medical sensors for newborns
Northwestern University researchers have developed a wireless, battery-powered monitoring system for newborn babies to provide clinical-grade care in nearly any setting. (Northwestern University)

Premature birth can be a challenge for some medical facilities. According to statistics, one million never make it to their next birthday, and 50% of babies in low-resource settings die before 32 weeks of age.

To improve care, an interdisciplinary team of Northwestern University researchers has developed a wireless, battery-powered monitoring system for newborn babies that can easily be implemented to provide clinical-grade care in nearly any setting.

According to the researchers, the devices also exceed the capabilities of existing, wired monitoring technologies to provide information beyond traditional vital signs, including crying, movement, body orientation and heart sounds. These soft, flexible sensors also are far gentler on newborns’ fragile skin, and their wireless capabilities allow for more skin-to-skin contact with parents. 

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The researchers also hope the sensors can monitor pregnant women during labor to ensure a healthy and safe delivery and reduce risks of maternal mortality. By closely monitoring the most vulnerable patients, physicians can be alerted to intervene before the infant or mother become seriously ill.

Details about the technology were published March 11 in the journal Nature Medicine, with extensive tests on newborns at Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago and Prentice Women’s Hospital in Chicago. The sensors are also now being tested on newborns at Aga Khan University Hospital Nairobi, Kenya, and on pregnant mothers in the University Teaching Hospital in Lusaka, Zambia.

Led by Northwestern’s John A. Rogers, the research team developed the sensors last year and tested them on babies in the United States.

“We designed our technology to offer affordable, clinical-grade monitoring capabilities for use anywhere in the world—from the hospital to the home to the field,” Rogers said. “Using advanced concepts in soft electronics, we achieved devices that are safe, easy to use and patient-centric. We included in our research a focus on features to allow application in low-resource settings in the developing world, where this type of technology has the greatest potential to improve and possibly save lives.”

The study builds on previous research conducted in the Rogers lab. Last February, Rogers and his collaborators published results from a study conducted at Lurie Children’s Hospital and Prentice Women’s Hospital in Chicago. Here, researchers tested a pair of wireless, battery-free, flexible sensors on premature babies. The sensors proved to be as precise and accurate as traditional wire-based monitoring devices that interfere with parent-baby cuddling and physical bonding.

Rogers’ team added a small, thin, rechargeable battery to give the device stable, reliable power for operation in rural settings and to improve the wireless operating range. The team also added extra sensing capabilities to monitor crying, movement and heart sounds.

“Some areas experience rolling blackouts every day and uneven internet coverage,” said Dr. Shuai (Steve) Xu, a Northwestern Medicine dermatologist and co-first author of the study who leads deployment of the system on the ground. “People in these areas need a practical device that works and is cheaper to manufacture.”

The sensors use radio frequencies to wirelessly transmit data from the baby to nurses’ station displays. They also can send data directly to a smartphone or tablet.

“The beauty of the technology is that it can operate with a wide range of mobile devices without sacrificing accuracy, relative to the most sophisticated systems used in hospitals today,” Xu said. “You don’t need expensive equipment that requires a specialized bioengineer and I.T. department to install. You pull out your mobile device, connect to our sensors, and you’re taking care of patients.