Helping Babies Breathe Easier

Sleep apnea is common among premature infants. In fact, half of all babies born prematurely have apnea episodes in the first year of life. When an infant stops breathing, a gentle tap on the foot is generally enough to get him or her to resume, but only if a parent or caregiver notices.

This is particularly a problem in developing countries, where inadequate prenatal care means more babies are born prematurely, and insufficient staff at neonatal care facilities may not immediately see when a baby has stopped breathing. Monitors are available to detect this, but they’re costly, and of little help when the caregiver is overextended.

Now a team of Rice University students have unveiled a device that might help. The inexpensive, battery-operated Babalung detects when breathing has stopped, and uses a vibrating motor to replicate the gentle tap. This is the first apnea monitor that tries to restart breathing as well. If this is unsuccessful a visual indicator signals for the caregiver’s attention. An audio alert was deemed impractical in a busy, noisy care facility.

The device can also be used to record respiratory data, allowing doctors to track a baby’s progress and health. This information is stored, and it can also be transmitted via Bluetooth.

The team hopes to make the device available in the developing world, where it could save as many as six million lives, and eventually market it in the United States as well. They say the biggest complaint they heard about existing monitors is false alarms, a problem they say theyfixed in the Babalung.

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