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UBC researchers create robot to help soothe pain of neonatal intensive care unit babies

A University of British Columbia researcher has tested a robot to help soothe babies in newborn intensive care units.  -  UBC Media Relations
A University of British Columbia researcher has tested a robot to help soothe babies in newborn intensive care units. - UBC Media Relations - YouTube

'Calmer' was created to mimic 'hand-hugging,' a treatment in which a premature baby is gently held in a curled position to manage pain.

VANCOUVER, B.C. —

Nothing soothes a newborn’s pain like the tender touch of a loving parent, but researchers at the University of B.C. hope their new robot might help sometimes.

“Calmer” was created to mimic hand-hugging, a treatment in which a premature baby’s head, hands and legs are gently held in a curled position to help manage pain from medical procedures. Lead inventor Liisa Holsti developed the robot with colleagues at UBC and said it mimics some of the therapeutic aspects of skin-to-skin holding.

The white-metal device is about the size of a standard pillow. On top of it rests a silicon mat wrapped in Gore-Tex fabric, meant to feel like a parent’s soft touch. When the robot is turned on, its platform gently rocks up-and-down while playing the sound of a beating heart, both programmed to match the rate of a parent’s own breaths and heartbeat.

“The type of pain that these babies have actually changes their brain development and so what we’re trying to do is protect the brain of premature babies,” said Holsti, an associate professor at the department of occupational science and therapy.

Holsti was also lead scientist for the robot’s first randomized controlled trial to evaluate whether it reduced pain in premature babies at B.C. Women’s Hospital’s neonatal intensive care unit (NICU).

The 49 premature babies in the study had just undergone a routine, medically ordered blood test, so the study caused them no additional pain. Half were hand-hugged, the other half were placed on the robot.

The researchers then looked at how the babies’ faces and hands changed, as well as their heart rates and brain-oxygen levels.

“We found no difference between the robot treatment and the human-touch treatment,” Holsti said.

Holsti stressed that the robot isn’t a replacement for human touch, but could be helpful in many cases. Her hope is that it could eventually be available for all premature babies.

“There are times when it’s very busy in an NICU and nurses may not be able to be there all the time when a lab tech comes to take the blood, and so our goal would be that Calmer would be available when parents can’t do skin-to-skin holding or nurses have to be doing other things,” she said.

“It’s an additive to care. It’s not meant to replace human beings,” she said.

Lauren Mathany, 34, a new Vancouver mother who works in public health, said that while “Calmer” wasn’t yet being used when her twin girls Hazel and Isla were born four months’ premature, she can see how it could have helped. It would have comforted the twins — now healthy, happy and close to 11 months old — and given some reassurance to Mathany and her husband, who works in construction, she said.

“I think it would have been great,” Mathany said.

During the four months the girls were in the NICU, Mathany and her husband gave the girls plenty of hand-hugging and hours of skin-to-skin contact every day. They would sing and talk to them too.

But the new parents couldn’t be at the NICU around the clock and needed to rest so they could take proper care of themselves and the girls, she said.

“If the Calmer was available to them, we’d know that during medical procedures, blood work, etc., that there was something there to make them feel safe and reassured, and feel that we were still with them, even though we couldn’t be, physically,” she said.

By Nick Eagland

neagland@postmedia.com

twitter.com/nickeagland

Copyright Postmedia Network Inc., 2019

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