The time-saving sensor that could save tiny lives | Action Medical Research

Touching Lives - September 2015

The time-saving sensor that could save tiny lives

Baby Daisy wearing the HeartLight sensorAction funding has helped to develop and test a hands-free heart-rate monitor designed to make resuscitation easier in the crucial minutes just after birth. 

Every new parent listens out for that first cry when their baby is born, but if that scream doesn’t come then it is up to the midwives and doctors in the delivery room to start life-saving resuscitation.

About one in 10 babies need help to stimulate breathing in the minutes after their birth – that’s around 80,000 a year in the UK. Many have been born too early and their lungs are not quite ready for life outside the womb. However, even babies born at full term can need support.

Without immediate help, there is a serious risk that these babies will suffer brain damage or die because they are not getting enough oxygen. Every second counts.

To ensure their efforts are working, doctors or midwives need to monitor a baby’s heart rate. This usually means listening in with a stethoscope then calculating the heart rate themselves. But this requires them to stop resuscitation and, since it does not provide a continuous measure, means pausing every 30 seconds or so to repeat the checks. In the hectic surroundings of the delivery room, there is also a risk of human error.


In 2008, Action Medical Research awarded a grant of almost £116,000 to a team of doctors and engineers based at the University of Nottingham. This was used to help develop, test and refine a new hands-free sensor, called HeartLight, which could be attached to a baby’s forehead and used to provide a continuous heart-rate reading.

This initial trial was crucial to find out whether or not the proposed technology could work in newborn babies. These first tests, involving more than 100 babies, showed that HeartLight was indeed reliable and accurate, with the new device taking only a few seconds to set up and able to give a first reading within just five seconds.

The device has since undergone further development and the team now hope it will be widely available and used in hospitals by 2017, protecting the most vulnerable new arrivals all over the world.

Team member Professor Barrie Hayes-Gill says: “If HeartLight performs as we hope, it could significantly improve the resuscitation of newborn babies.” This could help save babies’ lives or prevent long-term brain damage and reduce admissions to neonatal intensive care units.

Daisy aged five on slideDAISY'S STORY

Deborah and Nick, parents of Daisy, are acutely aware of how important this, and other research to help sick and premature babies, is.

Now five, Daisy (pictured top and bottom right) was one of the babies involved in the Action-supported HeartLight trial. She was born 13 weeks early, weighing just 1lb 8.5oz. Her arrival, by emergency caesarean, was sudden and she was small for her gestational age. While she did make an attempt to breathe by herself, she was so tiny that life-saving ventilation was the only option.

“I’d had to be put under general anaesthetic,” recalls Deborah. “When I woke up I didn’t know if I had a child that had made it or not. The midwife came in with a photograph and explained that she was unwell, small, but feisty.

“When we first saw Daisy in intensive care it was very frightening. She was connected to all the wires and machinery, looking so vulnerable. She could easily fit in the palm of Nick’s hand. But they were still very busy working to get her stable so we couldn’t yet touch her. It wasn’t until the next day I got to hold her tiny little hand, which was about the size of a penny.”


Daisy’s early weeks were a roller coaster of ups and downs. She was ventilated five times, treated for the potentially deadly bowel condition necrotising enterocolitis and had laser treatment for retinopathy, a condition that can damage the sight of premature babies. She also suffered collapsed lungs and pneumonia, and had suspected meningitis.

When she was four weeks old, Daisy took part in the HeartLight trial. Deborah and Nick knew that the sensor could potentially help to improve the care of other premature babies at birth.

“We were happy for Daisy to do this as she had been given treatments that had been researched and we wanted to be able to do something to help babies in the future,” says Deborah. “She didn’t mind the monitor at all as it was very non-invasive. She seemed very comfortable with it on and continued to sleep soundly.”

Daisy eventually came home two weeks after the date she was originally due and last year became a big sister to baby Poppy, who also arrived five weeks before her due date.

This work was supported by a donation from the Jessie Spencer Trust.

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