Wireless skin patches that measure a baby's vital signs could be a safer and more comfortable way to monitor premature and sick infants in the hospital.
Each year, approximately 300,000 neonates are admitted to neonatal intensive care units in the United States, including preterm infants who are vulnerable to heart, respiratory and other medical complications (SN Online: 16/02/11). Doctors must constantly monitor the vital signs of these tiny patients, which usually means giving the newborn rigid hardwired sensors in machines around the cradle of the baby.
However, the adhesives present on these sensors can damage the fragile skin of the infant and make it difficult for the caregiver to take control of the child, which allows a crucial skin-to-skin contact (SN online: 22/03/17). The new wireless sensors described in March 1st Science, are designed to avoid these problems.
Each patch includes an ultra-thin layer of electronic components sandwiched between sheets of soft silicone. A patch, placed on the chest or back of the baby, uses electrodes to monitor the electrical activity of the baby's heart (SN online: 1/4/16). A second piece, worn by hand or foot, shines the LEDs on the baby's appendage and measures the amount of light absorbed by the tissue to measure the amount of oxygen in the blood. Both sensors monitor the baby's temperature.
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The pair of sensors continuously transmits this information to a nearby computer or tablet. An algorithm then uses this data to calculate the heart rate, respiratory rate, blood oxygenation, and blood pressure of the newborn. In pilot tests with 21 infants in NICUs, born as early as 28 weeks and up to term, skin patches provided information on the baby's vital signs, which were similar to conventional wire-attached sensors.
According to study co-author Steve Xu, a physician-engineer at the Feinberg School of Medicine in Chicago, supersoft silicone shells, which do not require adhesive to stick to the skin, are easier to use for the skin babies.
Two soft, flexible surfaces, like the sensor patch and a baby's skin, have a natural propensity to stick and stay together. "It's like putting together two American cheeses," says Xu. Without adhesives, these new sensors are much easier to remove – which is especially important for premature babies, who "are born as a giant sore because their skin is not developed enough," he says.
This wireless configuration could also help doctors and nurses to properly position children for medical exams and procedures, and parents to hold their children in charge, says Ruth Guinsburg, neonatologist at the Federal University of São Paulo in Brazil. , whose comments on the study appears in the same issue of Science. In addition to facilitating the creation of parent-child relationships, skin-to-skin contact has been proven to reduce the risk of infection for the infant and help relieve pain, she said.
Babies who are sick or born prematurely may not be the only ones to benefit from this technology, says study co-author Amy Paller, a researcher in pediatric dermatology at the Northwestern Feinberg School of Medicine. Skin patches may also be a gentler way to monitor patients with extremely fragile skin, such as burn victims or people with genetic skin disorders such as epidermolysis bullosa (SN: 12/9/17, p. 6).