Help is on the way for parents who lie awake in bed worrying about their newborn babies sleeping in the nursery. New "smart" baby clothing could automatically track infants' breathing and alert parents in case of trouble.
Parents won't have to directly attach sensors to their infants to achieve peace of mind. Researchers fitted a baby romper suit with a printed circuit board — made of stretchable polyurethane — and commercially available sensors to monitor the breathing in a baby's chest and stomach areas. Such work marks yet another step toward the future of "smart" or "intelligent" clothing that could monitor soldiers and babies alike.
"The circuit board we have developed can be manufactured using routine industrial processes, meaning a high throughput and, consequently, good cost-efficiency," said Manuel Seckel, a scientist at the Fraunhofer Institute for Reliability and Microintegration IZM in Berlin, Germany.
Baby suits with the added technological twist could possibly help unravel the mystery of the 4,500 infants in the United States who die suddenly from no obvious cause each year. Health researchers have already set up a database to track cases of sudden unexpected infant death (SUID) to better figure out how to prevent such tragedy. (SUID refers to sudden, unexpected deaths of an infant in which the manner and cause of death are not immediately obvious before an investigation.)
The smart baby suit fits into a broad array of ideas for so-called smart clothing that could transform ordinary shirts, gloves or even underwear into health-tracking devices. Most of today's smart clothing prototypes typically attach stiff electronic chips or parts to flexible clothing materials.
But many labs have struggled with the next step of turning hard electronics into soft, stretchable components that work well with clothing. Several research groups have experimented with making special clothing fibers that can act as soft, flexible touch screens and batteries.
Fraunhofer researchers took a slightly different route by using the stretchable polyurethane circuit board as a middle-man platform for placing electronic components. The positioning is more precise with the printed circuit board compared to placing electronics directly onto clothing materials, Seckel said.
The stretchable circuit board could also help more than just babies and sleep-deprived parents. For instance, a polyurethane plaster with embedded sensors could help nurses find the right place to apply a pressure bandage to the wounds of a burn patient.