We know that when NICU parents are involved in their baby's care everyone benefits. Having mom and dad change, feed and cuddle their babies is called family-integrated care and studies prove it is very important for NICU families.
But all those wires attached to a little one can make it hard for parents to be as involved as they want to be. So researchers have figured out a way to get rid of the wires while still monitoring baby's vital signs.
Researchers at Northwestern University and the Robert H. Lurie Children's Hospital in Chicago tested out wireless sensors on premature babies and found biosensor stickers specially designed for a preemie's delicate skin are effective, gentle and promote more skin-to-skin contact and opportunities for family-integrated care in the NICU.
Skin-to-skin contact is so important for these babies: "It's been shown to decrease the risk of pulmonary complications, liver issues and infections. Yet, when you have wires everywhere and the baby is tethered to a bed, it's really hard to make skin-to-skin contact," says Dr. Amy Paller, who co-led the study.
Sensors are first to monitor babies in the NICU
Dr. Aaron Hamvas, the Division Head of Neonatology at Lurie Children's agrees: Having babies connected to wires is a huge barrier to care for parents and even for nurses.
"Wires are going up to the monitor, down to the baby, maybe going through holes in an incubator," Hamvas explains. "Nurses and parents try to get the babies all bundled, so they don't accidentally pull anything off them or out of the wall. It's very, very cumbersome and stressful. If the baby were totally unencumbered, it would be tremendously more efficient and less prone to problems."
Parents who have been through it know it's true. Taschana Taylor's daughter Grace stayed in the NICU at Lurie Children's for three weeks after an emergency C-section and was hooked up to wired sensors.
"Trying to feed her, change her, swaddle her, hold her and move around with her with the wires was difficult," Taylor says. "If she didn't have wires on her, we could go for a walk around the room together. It would have made the entire experience more enjoyable."
Many NICU babies have as many as five or six wires connected to them to monitor vital signs like breathing, blood pressure, blood oxygen and heartbeat. The wires get in parents' way, and they also get in the baby's way, constraining their movements.
The new sensors allow babies to move more freely and parents and medical staff to provide more crucial contact. They're also super light (they weigh about as much as a raindrop, according to Northwestern). The babies wear two of them, one on the chest or back and another on a foot. Temperature, heart rate and respiration are all effectively monitored without any wires.
The system can measure blood pressure and give medical staff insight into differences in temperature between the foot and the chest, something that's not typically monitored in NICUs but can help medical teams understand what's happening with a baby's cardiac function.
The wireless sensors are also easier on preemie's delicate skin, as tape and traditional sensors and blood pressure cuffs can pull, remove or blister them. "The strength of the adhesive required to keep our lightweight device on the skin is much lower than that of the kinds of adhesives needed to maintain an interface between a hardwired sensor and an external box," says John Rogers, PhD, a bio-electronics expert and the study's co-author. "We have seen no adverse side effects in our study, not even a hint of skin injury even in the most frail babies."
This medical breakthrough is nothing short of amazing and Rogers says the wireless sensors will likely be in use in American hospitals within the next two to three years!
On behalf of all the past and future NICU mamas, we thank these researchers for getting these babies out of the tangle of wires and into the arms of those who love them.