Georgia researchers are developing an easier heartbeat-and-breathing monitor for babies at risk for sudden infant death syndrome, or SIDS. Instead of a cumbersome monitor many at-risk children wear, the high-tech T-shirt created by scientists has electronic sensors sewn into the fabric.
Seven-week-old Matthew Condon, who has a condition that causes brief interruptions to his breathing, tried on a prototype. The shirt hugged his chest snugly enough that the sensors were in just the right spot to monitor his heart.
The new technology is a twist on a shirt developed by Georgia Tech engineers for the military to beam back to doctors the condition of soldiers wounded on the battlefield.
For Dr. Gary Freed, who is awaiting permission to begin testing the shirts on babies at Emory University this fall, converting the technology for civilian use is timely because more and more infants need at-home monitoring.
"A lot of that has to do with the managed care and insurance," says Freed, whose Emory center cares for 900 babies on monitors.
Premature or underweight babies, considered high risk, "normally would have been left in the hospital for a longer period, but instead they're putting them out sooner with the monitors," he says.
All parents now are told to put babies to sleep on their backs, not on their stomachs -- a proven way to reduce the risk of SIDS.
Putting high-risk babies on a cardiorespiratory monitor is a little controversial. Some critics say a baby predestined for SIDS cannot be revived even if the monitor blares a warning, and that there's not enough risk to justify monitoring preemies who appear healthy.
But many doctors say monitoring high-risk infants is important. At the least, it records heart rates that might help diagnose certain treatable illnesses, and can reassure parents who have experienced the death of an infant before.
For apnea - the breathing problem Matthew sometimes experiences --monitors can be lifesaving.
With today's monitors, a Velcro-snapped belt holds rubber electrodes on the infant's chest. Wires connect the electrodes to a cable that plugs into the monitor itself, the size of a small VCR. If those connections slip, the monitor emits a loud and frightening false alarm.
And as older babies roll over and scoot around, some parents fear they'll get tangled in the wires and strangle, so they abandon the monitors.
The military isn't yet pursuing the shirt, so Georgia Tech lead engineer Sundaresan Jayaraman is converting it to civilian uses -- and the baby-sized SIDS shirts are poised to be the first studied medically.
The first prototypes will eliminate putting electrodes on babies' skin. Wires still will lead to the monitor, but from the bottom of the shirt, not near the baby's neck. If those prove to record heartbeat as well as old-fashioned electrodes, the next step is a simple wireless shirt with a beeper-sized monitor clipped to it.
But the shirt can be customzed to various needs, says Jayaraman, who is seeking manufacturers. He's getting interest from firefighters in a shirt to detect hazardous gases and wonders if heart attack survivors could one day benefit from wearing a heart-monitor shirt home from the hospital.
At an estimated $25 to $35 a shirt, he calls it a good buy.