Page last updated at 04:38 GMT, Tuesday, 15 July 2008 05:38 UK

Hope of life for premature babies

By Elaine Thelen
BBC News, Nottingham

Baby in incubator
Almost 10% of babies require resuscitation at birth
The lives of premature babies could be saved by a new kind of heart monitor being developed by researchers at the University of Nottingham.

The device, which uses light shone through a baby's skin, should be able to check a heart rate quicker and more reliably than a traditional stethoscope.

About 10% of the 700,000 babies who are born in the UK require some form of resuscitation at birth, and the monitor is aimed at helping doctors treat the most vulnerable.

The specialist care requirements of premature babies make the monitoring of their heart rate particularly challenging.

Using a stethoscope interrupts resuscitation and can lead to dangerous delays according to a leading consultant neonatologist.

Latest technology

The new device uses a technique called photoplethysmography (PPG).

A small optical probe, when placed on the baby's head, will monitor the heart rate autonomously by measuring changes in blood flow under the skin and therefore detect the baby's pulse.

Heart rate monitor
It will lead to much greater safety in the delivery room
Prof Neil Marlow, consultant neonatologist

The information is recorded on a microchip and uses Bluetooth technology to transfer the data.

The prototype of the device, which was made in 2005, was initially aimed at monitoring workers in dangerous environments within the mining industry for health and safety purposes.

The research team have been awarded about 120,000 in funding from Action Medical Research to assess how the device performs in neonatal units and delivery suites.

Dr Barrie Hayes-Gill from the university's School of Electrical and Electronic Engineering, said although it took several years to develop the device, it was relatively simple.

"This represents a big advance for us in that we can see massive opportunities for this single-point detection of heart rate placed anywhere on the body.

'Exciting challenge'

"This is a very exciting challenge for us. The advantage of this device is it emits a small amount of light which you place up against the skin.

"There's a silicon photo detector in the centre - as the blood rushes by the light level varies.

"The change in reflective light is in proportion to the volume of the blood travelling through the vein.

"As the heart beats the volume of blood changes.

Prof Neil Marlow
Prof Marlow says time is crucial when resuscitating babies
"It's earlyish days but we've worked on it for three years with adults."

Consultant neonatologist, Prof Neil Marlow from the Queen's Medical Centre in Nottingham said the device would lead to greater safety in the delivery room.

"I think this will be a real advance in our ability to monitor babies immediately after they're born.

"At present to measure the heart rate we have to stop and count.

Vital minutes

"This will actually give us for the first time a visible and an audible reminder of the heart rate continuously.

"And those minutes after birth are very important - it will allow us to carry on with the processes we go through to stabilise the baby.

"Immediately after the baby's born the heart rate is slow, as the baby responds the heart rate goes up quickly.

"I hope this will be a very straightforward and simple device which we'll be able to use routinely after birth on babies who are at-risk."

The new baby monitor will be trialled at Nottingham's Queen's Medical Centre, initially on babies in the neonatal intensive care unit who have made a full recovery.

Then it will be trialled on full-term babies delivered by elective Caesarean section.

The final phase will be testing the device on babies in the delivery suite born prematurely at between 24 to 36 weeks.

The trial is due to finish next year, and if data proves it has been successful it could be rolled out nationwide.

Q&A: Premature babies
15 Nov 06 |  Health
Premature babies 'need cuddles'
24 May 08 |  Health

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