Prematurely-born babies usually have at least five or six hard-wired sensors attached to their bodies, tracking vital stats such as breathing, blood pressure, blood oxygen and heartbeat. Thanks to newly-developed technology, however, all those cumbersome wires may soon become a thing of the past.

There are two main problems with the wires. For one thing, they keep the infant from moving freely within its crib. Additionally, they make it harder for parents and nurses to hold the baby and make skin contact with it, which is essential to its well-being.

With that in mind, scientists from Chicago's Northwestern University have developed a system that's centered around two small, thin, wireless sensors. They're made of soft, biocompatible silicone, and work with a transmitter unit located beneath the crib mattress – that unit relays data to a display at a nearby nurse's station.

One of the sensors is placed on the baby's chest or back, while the other gets wrapped around a foot. They then proceed to monitor heart rate, respiration rate, blood oxygen levels and body temperature, from opposite ends of the infant's body.

"Differences in temperature between the foot and the chest have great clinical importance in determining blood flow and cardiac function," says study leader, Prof. John A. Rogers. "That's something that's not commonly done today."

The system also measures blood pressure, by tracking how much time elapses between an individual heartbeat and the corresponding pulse arriving at the foot. Traditional methods of blood pressure measurement for preemies include wrist cuffs, which can cause bruising, or a catheter inserted into an artery.

Initially, the technology was tested on 20 babies in a neonatal intensive care unit, although that figure has since climbed to over 70. In all cases, it was found that the new system provided data as precise and accurate as that obtained from traditional monitoring systems. Additionally, there were no adverse side effects, such as the skin irritation that can be caused by the adhesive tape used with conventional sensors.

And while the sensors can be sterilized and reused, they can also simply be discarded, as they only cost about US$10 each. It is hoped that they will begin to appear in US hospitals within two to three years.

A paper on the technology was published this week in the journal Science.

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