You Need to Know about These Technologies Helping Premature Babies

According to the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, around 4 million babies are born in the United States each year. Of these babies, about one in every 10 is born premature or “preterm,” a word used to describe any infant born before 37 weeks of gestation. Preterm birth is the leading cause of death for American children under five years of age, and the condition has been known to cause lifelong complications in the areas of hearing, sight, and learning.

Though the work of organizations like the March of Dimes Foundation has resulted in consistently lower rates of preterm birth with each passing year, the threat cannot be completely eradicated. To improve the health of premature babies, the medical community has turned its attention to creating technologies that facilitate these children’s healthy development.

Here are three technologies that help preterm infants grow into healthy children:

1. Weight Gain Monitoring Device

Medical professionals at the prestigious Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles have recently started using an advanced technology that helps them monitor the weight and body composition of preterm babies in the hospital’s neonatal intensive-care unit (NICU). Similar in design to an MRI machine, the device uses air-displacement mechanisms to accurately calculate a newborn’s percentages of fat and lean muscle mass.

To do this, they place the infant into a warm chamber that measures the amount of air displacement over the course of two minutes. Using this data, the device is able to calculate how much of the baby’s weight can be attributed to body mass versus fat. The precise body composition measurements are then used to adjust the infant’s diet to achieve faster, healthier weight gain.

This technology is approved by the FDA for use in newborns weighing 3 pounds 5 ounces or less, or for infants that subsist on IV nutrition for at least two weeks after birth. Because babies using this device receive more tailored nourishment, they often gain weight faster and go home earlier than premature babies not weighed with this machine.

2. Body Temperature-Regulating Blankets

Once a premature infant is deemed healthy enough to go home, parents must provide a high level of care to bolster the baby’s health. This often means taking advanced measures to monitor eating habits, prevent the contraction of illness, and keep the child warm.

Because of the low bodyweight associated with preterm births, affected infants struggle to maintain their body temperature and have a higher incidence of developing neonatal hypothermia. This condition can lead to respiratory issues, low glucose levels, and even death. Conversely, overheating may lead to an increased risk for Sudden Infant Death Syndrome. Luckily, a technologically advanced blanket recently developed by a San Francisco, California-based startup can help regulate babies’ body temperature.

Fashioned from the same fabric used in NASA spacesuits, the company’s modern swaddles, blankets, and sleeping bags assist in the regulation of body temperature by retaining heat to warm an infant, and then releasing heat when the baby’s temperature rises too high. In addition to these effective regulatory properties, the swaddles can be easily cleaned at home in the washing machine. The products are also equipped with zippers, which allow parents to easily change diapers without having to remove their child from the warmth of the material.

3. 3D-Printed Feeding System

In addition to allowing the medical industry to create more affordable prosthetics and even engineer living tissue, 3D printing technology has created a feeding system that enables premature infants to consume breastmilk.

Premature babies need the nutrients in breastmilk even more than their full-term counterparts do. However, these infants often have trouble nursing due to their small size and frequent health issues. To solve this problem, scientists have used 3D-printing technology to create a slim bottle that doubles as a syringe, thereby allowing new mothers and hospital caregivers to accurately measure the amount of milk ingested by an infant. The end of the bottle is tipped with a rubber nipple, which can help premature infants maintain healthy levels of oxygen and better breathing rates while drinking compared to those levels maintained when a premature baby nurses directly from the mother.

The most innovative element of the feeding system is the technology that allows a mother to pump breastmilk directly into the device for immediate feeding or storage. This element of the bottle is crucial, because pumped milk can be contaminated by germs if it is collected and then transferred from a storage container into a feeding device.

Choosing to feed infants with breastmilk as opposed to formula can play a significant role in physical development, including IQ level. This effort is especially important for preterm infants, whose mothers’ bodies tend to produce breastmilk with higher levels of amino acids, fat, protein, and sodium to supplement the growth that the child was not able to sustain in utero.

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