The Sickest Babies Are Covered in Wires. New Tech Is Changing That.

A wired baby in a neonatal intensive care unit.

(Northwestern University)


I'll never forget the experience of having a child in the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU).

Now more than ever, we're working to remove the barriers between new parents and their infants.

It was another layer of uncertainty that filtered into my experience of being a first-time parent. There was so much I didn't know, and the wires attached to my son's small body for the first week of his life were a reminder of that.

I wanted to be the best mother possible. I deeply desired to bring my son home to start our lives. More than anything, I longed for a wireless baby whom I could hold and love freely without limitations.

The wires suggested my baby was fragile and it left me feeling severely unprepared, anxious, and depressed.

In recent years, research has documented the ways that NICU experiences take a toll on parents' mental health. But thankfully, medical technology is rapidly being developed to help reduce the emotional fallout of the NICU. Now more than ever, we're working to remove the barriers between new parents and their infants. The latest example is the first ever wireless monitoring system that was recently developed by a team at Northwestern University.

After listening to the needs of parents and medical staff, Debra Weese-Mayer, M.D., a professor of pediatric autonomic medicine at Feinberg School of Medicine, along with a team of materials scientists, engineers, dermatologists and pediatricians, set out to develop this potentially life-changing technology. Weese-Mayer believes wireless monitoring will have a significant impact for people on all sides of the NICU experience.

"With elimination of the cumbersome wires," she says, "the parents will find their infant more approachable/less intimidating and have improved access to their long-awaited but delivered-too-early infant, allowing them to begin skin-to-skin contact and holding with reduced concern for dislodging wires."

So how does the new system work?

Very thin "skin like" patches made of silicon rubber are placed on the surface of the skin to monitor vitals like heart rate, respiration rate, and body temperature. One patch is placed on the chest or back and the other is placed on the foot.

These patches are safer on the skin than previously used adhesives, reducing the cuts and infections associated with past methods. Finally, an antenna continuously delivers power, often from under the mattress.

The data collected from the patches stream from the body to a tablet or computer.

New wireless sensor technology is being studied to replace wired monitoring in NICUs in the coming years.

(Northwestern University)

Weese-Mayer hopes that wireless systems will be standard soon, but first they must undergo more thorough testing. "I would hope that in the next five years, wireless monitoring will be the standard in NICUs, but there are many essential validation steps before this technology will be embraced nationally," she says.

Until the new systems are ready, parents will be left struggling with the obstacles that wired monitoring presents.

Physical intimacy, for example, appears to have pain-reducing qualities -- something that is particularly important for babies who are battling serious illness. But wires make those cuddles more challenging.

There's also been minimal discussion about how wired monitoring can be particularly limiting for parents with disabilities and mobility aids, or even C-sections.

"When he was first born and I was recovering from my c-section, I couldn't deal with keeping the wires untangled while trying to sit down without hurting myself," says Rhiannon Giles, a writer from North Carolina, who delivered her son at just over 31 weeks after suffering from severe preeclampsia.

"The wires were awful," she remembers. "They fell off constantly when I shifted positions or he kicked a leg, which meant the monitors would alarm. It felt like an intrusion into the quiet little world I was trying to mentally create for us."

Over the last few years, researchers have begun to dive deeper into the literal and metaphorical challenges of wired monitoring.

For many parents, the wires prompt anxiety that worsens an already tense and vulnerable time.

I'll never forget the first time I got to hold my son without wires. It was the first time that motherhood felt manageable.

"Seeing my five-pound-babies covered in wires from head to toe rendered me completely overwhelmed," recalls Caila Smith, a mom of five from Indiana, whose NICU experience began when her twins were born pre-term. "The nurses seemed to handle them perfectly, but I was scared to touch them while they appeared so medically frail."

During the nine days it took for both twins to come home, the limited access she had to her babies started to impact her mental health. "If we would've had wireless sensors and monitors, it would've given us a much greater sense of freedom and confidence when snuggling our newborns," Smith says.

Besides enabling more natural interactions, wireless monitoring would make basic caregiving tasks much easier, like putting on a onesie.

"One thing I noticed is that many preemie outfits are made with zippers," points out Giles, "which just don't work well when your baby has wires coming off of them, head to toe."

Wired systems can pose issues for medical staff as well as parents.

"The main concern regarding wired systems is that they restrict access to the baby and often get tangled with other equipment, like IV lines," says Lamia Soghier, Medical Director of the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit at Children's National in Washington, D.C , who was also a NICU parent herself. "The nurses have to untangle the wires, which takes time, before handing the baby to the family."

I'll never forget the first time I got to hold my son without wires. It was the first time that motherhood felt manageable, and I couldn't stop myself from crying. Suddenly, anything felt possible and all the limitations from that first week of life seemed to fade away. The rise of wired-free monitoring will make some of the stressors that accompany NICU stays a thing of the past.

Rochaun Meadows-Fernandez
Rochaun Meadows-Fernandez is a diversity content specialist whose work can be seen in The Washington Post, Instyle, and many other places. An online portfolio of her work can be found at https://amfcontent.com.
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