NSF - National Science Foundation

09/17/2019 | Press release | Distributed by Public on 09/18/2019 09:44

Wearable motion sensors could save unborn babies

Research News

Team repurposes smartphone-style motion sensors to reduce stillbirths

Smartphone-style motion sensors may reduce stillbirths.

September 17, 2019

The thump, thump of a baby's heartbeat is a milestone in any pregnancy. Now, researchers at the Stevens Institute of Technology have developed a technique that could allow expecting parents to hear their baby's heartbeat continuously at home with a non-invasive and safe device that is potentially more accurate than any fetal heartrate monitor currently available.

The device can record vibrations sent through a mother's abdomen when her baby's heart beats or when the fetus squirms and kicks. The device could reduce an estimated 2.6 million stillbirths per year worldwide.

'Almost a third of stillbirths occur in the absence of complicating factors,' said Negar Tavassolian, who led the work. 'Our device could let a pregnant woman know if her fetus is compromised and she needs to go to the doctor.'

Many stillbirths are preceded by variations in fetal movement and heartrate, so affordable, lightweight monitors that detect vibrations generated from a heartbeat could be worn continuously in the final weeks of pregnancy to ensure that distressed fetuses receive prompt medical attention. The work is reported in the IEEE Sensors Journal.

In experiments on 10 pregnant women, the team found that the device could detect fetal heartrate with about the same accuracy as fetal cardiotocography -- considered the current standard for fetal monitoring -- which measures the electrical activity of the baby's heart together with the mother's uterine contractions.

A vibration monitor offers important advantages over existing tools based on electrical measurements or Doppler ultrasound technology, which require specialized knowledge to use and can be bulky and expensive. The team's sensors are barely one-fifth of an inch long, weigh very little, and can run off a 3-volt battery for more than 24 hours.

The research is funded by NSF's Directorate for Engineering.

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