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Temperature Sensors for Premature Babies

By janani – Posted on 22 August 2011

We’ve all winced and cried out when we have to pull of a piece of tape off ourselves. Our skin pulls and we’re left sore with angry red marks on our skin and tape residue. When this happens to a premature baby, the situation becomes not just painful, but fatal.

Premature babies are classified as any infant born before 37 weeks. Their organs are not fully developed, they are so small they could fit into your palm, and their skin is so thin you can see veins clearly. It is a critical time for these babies and it is vital to keep them in conditions similar to the womb. In particular, the temperature of the incubators for the preemie babies must be kept constant.

The preemies’ temperatures are monitored by attaching a thermometer to a baby with tape. The problem occurs when removing the thermometers. The thin and extremely sensitive baby skin cannot withstand the strength of the tape, and the babies are left with gaping wounds that put their lives at risk.

The key is to develop a temperature sensor that will not harm the premature babies. Dr. Lam, a member of CAST, is on the job. He and other members of CAST are exploring the idea of using fluorescent gel to detect temperature. The main component of the gel is chitosan, an antimicrobial substance that forms a thin layer on fruits and prevents them from spoiling. It is also used in food preservatives and in wound dressings. The decay time and intensity of fluorescent gel has a direct correlation with the temperature. Usually, the intensity decreases, as the temperature increases. Since decay time is also affected by the temperature, it also can be used to determine temperature.

A camera tracking the gel reports these statistics and corresponding software converts these into a readable temperature. Actions can be taken accordingly, and at no discomfort to the premature baby. The plan allows the baby to be free of wires or any other attachments. The gel can also be applied to both the back and the belly, so that the baby can move freely.

Currently, Dr. Lam is working on this project approved by the NIH.