Published July 24, 2019
Drawing on her own experience as the mother of a premature baby, Munmun Rawat, MD, research assistant professor of pediatrics in the Division of Neonatology, has developed a new incubator device that could replicate “kangaroo care” for the tiniest patients.
When it comes to parents bonding with newborns, skin-to-skin contact — also known as “kangaroo care” — is always best.
In the newborn intensive care unit (NICU), providers now encourage parents to engage in kangaroo care, even with babies weighing less than 2 pounds.
The evidence-based benefits include improving the baby’s ability to breathe, regulating body temperature and promoting weight gain. It also provides long-term advantages to the baby’s cognitive and motor development while benefiting parents and boosting the mother’s ability to lactate.
As a neonatologist, Rawat was determined to provide as much kangaroo care to her baby as she could. When her baby was born prematurely at 28 weeks, and had to spend 62 days in the NICU, she knew that didn’t have to be a barrier.
“My baby was just 1,200 grams (about 2.6 pounds), but as soon as he could be held, I ‘kangarooed’ him throughout the day, holding him on my chest,” Rawat says. “When I slept at night, my husband held him on his chest. Our son was ‘kangarooed’ for 12 out of 24 hours a day.”
Despite the baby’s premature birth, he is now set to turn 3 in August and is excelling through all the milestones of healthy toddler development.
But it bothered Rawat that babies that have to undergo surgery, or are deemed too unstable on very high cardio-respiratory support to be held, have to miss out on this integral experience.
“I was so familiar with the benefits of kangaroo care that I wanted all babies to have the benefit,” she said. “So it triggered the thought: ‘If we can’t bring baby to the mother, why not bring mother to the baby?’”
Working with faculty and students in the Department of Biomedical Engineering, Rawat began developing a concept to replicate kangaroo care for babies who are too fragile to be held.
She decided to develop an incubator mattress that mimics the rhythm of a mother and father’s breathing, and even their voices.
The team created a necklace made of sensors for the parents, which gathers data about their breathing patterns. Those data are programmed into the mattress, which then inflates and deflates in accordance with those breathing data. Another mechanical pump in the mattress replicates the vibration of the parent’s heartbeat. A small, fabric doll that the mother can sleep with gathers her personal odors, which help to familiarize the infant with parents, even without direct bodily contact.
“All of these factors are known to be of benefit to the baby,” Rawat says. “Of course, the best thing is for the parents to be in direct physical contact with their baby. But if that’s not possible, we are hoping that until that can happen, this will be the very next best thing.”
Dominick J. Calavano, Michelle A. Ford and Jack Grossman, who earned bachelor of science degrees in biomedical engineering in May, worked on the research team, as did Jason M. Smythe, biomedical engineering technician.
Andrew T. Olewnik, PhD, adjunct assistant professor and director of experiential learning in the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, also worked on the research team.