ECG necklace ensures underweight babies get life-saving skin contact

For low-birth-weight (LBW) babies, skin-to-skin contact with their mother can literally be a lifesaver. A new high-tech necklace ensures that they get enough of that snuggling, while also providing essential data on their vital signs.

The practice of maintaining therapeutic chest-to-chest skin contact with LBW and preterm infants is known as Kangaroo Mother Care (KMC), named after the manner in which baby kangaroos – aka joeys – stay in their mother’s pouch.

KMC has been endorsed by the World Health Organization since 2003, as it’s been shown to lower infant mortality, reduce the risk of hospital-acquired infections, increase weight gain, and protect brain development. It also boosts the uptake of breastfeeding, plus it strengthens the mother-infant bond.

While mothers in general are already quite happy to hold their baby to their chest for long periods of time, moms practicing KMC may nonetheless be left wondering if they should be holding on even longer. That’s where the Joey comes in.

The heart-symbol side of the Joey’s ECG patch faces the infant, while the kangaroo side faces the mother

Columbia University

Developed by Assoc. Prof. Xia Zhou and colleagues at Columbia University, the device is worn like a necklace by the mother. As she holds the infant’s bare chest to her own bare chest, a small patch of electrically conductive fabric is sandwiched between them.

That patch incorporates two electrocardiogram (ECG) sensors – one on either side – which respectively monitor the electrical activity of the mother’s and baby’s hearts. It’s hard-wired to an electronics module on the mother’s back, which analyzes and wirelessly transmits the ECG data to an app on her nearby smartphone.

As long as the Joey is detecting ECG signals from both individuals, the app knows that an effective KMC session is taking place. If the app determines that more KMC time is required, it alerts the mother to that fact.

The technology has been tested on 35 caregivers and their babies
The technology has been tested on 35 caregivers and their babies

Columbia University

The system is additionally able to differentiate the infant’s ECG signal from that of the mother, plus it can filter out background ‘noise’ produced by body movements. This means that it can continuously monitor the baby’s heart rate and respiration rate – again, the app lets the mother know if either of these fall outside of healthy parameters.

When tested on 35 caregivers and their infants, the Joey measured KMC duration with an average accuracy of 96%. It also provided vital-sign readings with what is described as clinically acceptable accuracy.

“I am very excited about our findings because they demonstrate the promising potential of physiological sensing using everyday conductive fabrics, a ubiquitous and natural sensing medium,” said PhD student Shao Qijia Shao, lead author of a paper on the study. “The comfort and ease of wear of these soft, sensing materials offer a significant advantage over rigid, adhesive sensors, which have been the mainstream methods for physiological sensing.”

The Joey is demonstrated in the following video.

Joey: Supporting Kangaroo Mother Care with Computational Fabrics

Source: Columbia University

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