Many infants need a little extra help as they adjust to life outside of their mothers’ wombs. This is where the work of neonatal intensive care units (NICUs) comes in. From helping infants overcome challenges associated with birth defects to supporting those who need help breathing after birth, these care units are responsible for saving the lives of countless children across the globe.
Another crucial role that NICUs fill is to provide care for infants who are born before term. According to the World Health Organization, around 15 million babies are born prematurely (earlier than 37 weeks of gestation) each year, and this number is only expected to rise. Preterm birth commonly results in health issues such as low body temperature and difficulty breastfeeding. Without proper medical assistance, many premature infants die from these complications.
This growing international need for better neonatal intensive care has galvanized health care companies and researchers into developing new ways of helping preterm infants. In recent years, this work has come to fruition in the form of several innovative NICU advancements, including the following:
Heart Rate Observation System (HeRO)
Premature infants face numerous health challenges during their first weeks of life. If left untreated for too long, simple problems such as infections can become life-threatening. Recognizing a need for better NICU patient monitoring, the Medical Predictive Science Corporation (MPSC) unveiled its HeRO system.
Extending beyond the capabilities of traditional monitoring systems, HeRO can detect even the smallest alterations in infants’ heartbeats and provide accurate feedback on developing health problems. The machine provides feedback on a scale of zero to seven. If an infant receives a score higher than two, it signifies to hospital staff that there may be a potential health problem. In addition, HeRO can alert caregivers to issues up to two days earlier than conventional tests. With this information, nurses and doctors are able to act earlier than ever before and deliver life-saving treatment to their tiny patients.
The HeRO system is available in three forms, each of which comes with different capabilities. HeRO ES, the most basic of the three, is a standalone device that can monitor one patient at a time. For hospitals seeking a more comprehensive system, MPSC also offers the HeRO Symphony, which can accommodate all the beds in a NICU unit. In addition, this version boasts such unique features as remote technical support and one year of patient data storage.
One of the challenges that premature infants must overcome before they can leave the hospital is low weight. In an effort to help these infants gain weight, COSMED leveraged air displacement plethysmography technology to create the advanced Pea Pod system.
To use the device, hospital staff place the infant inside a warmed incubator, which looks somewhat akin to an MRI machine. By analyzing the air displacement and pressure inside the capsule, the Pea Pod measures the infant’s body fat percentage, total body volume, and fat-free mass. This data helps hospital staff understand exactly how much of an infant’s body is fat and how much is muscle, and enables them to develop nutrition plans accordingly.
Before the creation of the device, hospital staff could only track changes in an infant’s body fat by testing him or her with four different devices over the course of several hours. However, the Pea Pod can provide the same accurate results within a time span of just two minutes.
For many premature infants, the simple task of eating is difficult without the implementation of a feeding tube. These babies often spend more time in the NICU as they cultivate their non-nutritive suck (NNS) skills, a term that describes the way infants must simultaneously suckle, swallow, and breathe while feeding. However, an innovation from Innara Health is helping to expedite this process for many premature infants.
The NTrainer System analyzes an infant’s NNS capabilities and allows caregivers to administer safe and effective treatment. Those who require assistance with feeding can receive therapy via the NTrainer device, which delivers steady pulses to a handheld pacifier attachment. When placed in the infant’s mouth, the pacifier facilitates neuromuscular training that enhances his or her ability to feed.
Caregivers typically provide NTrainer therapy three times per day for up to 20 minutes at a time. One of the most effective techniques for accelerating the treatment is to conduct therapy sessions at the same time as feedings occur, as this will help infants associate suckling with a full stomach. The NTrainer System better prepares premature infants to independently feed from the bottle or breast. This can not only reduce their time spent in the NICU, but can also support healthy neurodevelopment into early childhood.
Infants born before term do not possess the amount of body fat needed to effectively regulate their body temperature. Most NICUs place these babies in incubators to keep their temperature steady. However, there are numerous families and medical centers across the globe that lack access to modern incubators due to power constraints, insufficient funding, and crowded hospitals.
In an effort to overcome these challenges and save lives, a group of graduate students at Stanford University established Embrace in 2007. A non-profit organization, it has created a personal temperature-regulating device for premature infants. Designed like a sleeping bag, Embrace utilizes a specialized phase-change material that can remain at a temperature of 98.6 degrees Fahrenheit (37 C) for six hours at a time. Parents and caregivers can heat the bag using either the provided portable heater, or by immersing it in boiling water.
Embrace is not only effective at helping infants retain body heat, but it is also portable, which makes it perfect for use during transportation, and costs only a fraction of the price of standard technologies.