Incubators and innovators: tech transforming neonatal baby care

Premature babies usually require an extended hospital stay after they’re born, where they need to be closely monitored to make sure they receive the best possible start in life. Caring for this uniquely vulnerable population has always been a challenge, but new technologies mean neonates are receiving better medical treatment than ever before. Chloe Kent rounds up the smart tech helping to keep premature babies alive and healthy.


eonates are a population that has been historically underserved by the medtech industry. Very few devices are authorised for patients younger than two years old each year, despite their unique medical needs.

Premature babies, or preemies, are a particularly vulnerable part of the neonatal population. These babies, born before 37 weeks gestation, typically require special care after they are born as they haven’t had the chance to fully develop, and aren’t always ready for life outside the womb.

Fortunately, advances in neonatal care have come a long way and premature babies now have access to better medical care than they ever have before. Medical Technology takes a closer look at some of the most exciting developments in the field of preemie care.

A smart mattress could soon be helping keep premature babies warm

Premature babies are at an increased risk of complications if their body temperature isn’t maintained, but they can lose heat rapidly.

Researchers at Nottingham Trent University have developed a smart warming system that can provide enough heat to ensure premature babies are kept warm. Active warming like this can avoid the need for more intensive intervention down the line and improve a baby’s early development.

The mattress, which is made from polyurethane elastomers and foam, applies uniform and precisely controlled heating characteristics. In its current prototype form, it has to be precisely controlled to ensure that it delivers the correct amount of heat.

The prototype is now expected to undergo testing before any open market release. The project has been completed in collaboration with Rober, a company that manufactures ‘zero pressure’ mattresses to help bedbound people avoid pressure ulcers.

The smart mattress applies uniform and precisely controlled heating characteristics. Credit: Rober

Incubation innovations are improving care for babies and families

Premature babies in special incubators are something most of us are familiar with, even if this is via film and TV rather than personal experience, and the technology inside of them is becoming more advanced every year.

Keeping a premature or very ill baby in an incubator allows them to put all their energy into growing rather than keeping warm. If the baby needs to have surgery, being kept in an incubator will improve their potential outcomes as the device allows doctors to prepare them in the best possible environment.

The Dräger BabyLeo represents the very latest in neonatal care technology, designed around the needs of both the baby and their family to ensure the child receives the best possible treatment.

The device is designed to keep a baby warm as an incubator, a radiant warmer and during the transition between close and open care. Its connected heater, dual-radiant warmer and heated mattress are all synchronised to maintain a stable temperature at all times, regardless of which setting needs to be used.

What sets the BabyLeo apart are its family-focused features. The large variable height adjustment range helps breastfeeding parents nurse their newborn even if they’re in a wheelchair, making the device more accessible for both disabled parents and those temporarily in a wheelchair while they recover from giving birth.

Newborns in a BabyLeo can also nurse with the lid of the incubator open or closed depending on what procedures are being performed, meaning there’s no risk of any treatment they’re undergoing being disrupted while they feed.

The device also comes with a personalised Family View display which displays information about the baby’s therapy status and progress into an easy-to-understand format, helping to integrate parents into their child’s care.

Babyleo TN500 supplies constant warmth for premature babies. Credit: Drägerwerk AG & Co. KGaA

Video messaging is keeping families connected during the pandemic

During the Covid-19 pandemic, many neonatal intensive care units in the UK are limiting who can physically visit their baby. Some units are only allowing one parent to see their child at a time or implementing visiting time limits.

For parents who cannot be with their baby, vCreate allows them to stay connected to their child. The secure video messaging service allows hospital staff to send regular video and photo messages to parents, so they don’t miss crucial moments of their child’s first weeks.

The messages can be accessed on any device, whenever the parents want, and can be downloaded and kept forever. vCreate’s security protocols mean that parents and staff have full control of the videos, and only they can access them.

Even before Covid-19, it was understood that preemie parents couldn’t be with their children 24/7, and technologies like vCreate can help them feel more connected with their baby’s care process.

The software is available globally to all neonatal units and is NHS Trusted in the UK. vCreate’s sponsor-led funding model means the service is free to all parents and comes at no cost to the units.

Medtronic is paving the way for neonatal kidney therapy

Critically ill neonates are particularly vulnerable to fluid overload, a condition where there is too much fluid in the blood, and acute kidney injury. It’s one of the most critical things to avoid during those first few weeks, as the mortality rate for neonates with acute kidney injuries has been estimated to be as high as 60%.

The US Food and Drug Administration has now approved Medtronic’s Carpediem Cardio-Renal Paediatric Dialysis Emergency Machine for clinical use. The Carpediem system is designed to provide continuous renal replacement therapy (CRRT) for neonatal patients from 2.5kg to 10kg, enabling more precise treatment and reducing risks.

CRRT is one of the most common blood purification therapies used for patients with kidney injuries. The patient’s blood is pumped through a haemofilter to remove waste and excess fluid, maintaining cardiac stability and minimising the risk of low blood pressure.

However, CRRT for neonatal patients hasn’t always been delivered in optimal circumstances, as traditional dialysis machines aren’t designed for their small bodies. As younger children have less blood, the effect of errors is amplified when they use a machine designed for an adult, putting their safety at risk.

Medtronic is now rolling out the device across the US, with its first successful deployment occurring at the Cincinnati Children's Hospital Medical Center in December last year.

Medtronic’s Carpediem Cardio-Renal Paediatric Dialysis Emergency Machine. Credit: Medtronic