ST. GEORGE — In a recently launched pilot study researchers tested an at-home pregnancy sensor, which they hope has the potential to prevent stillbirths through continuous fetal heart rate monitoring.
The pilot study was performed by researchers from the Stevens Institute of Technology, who designed a wearable motion sensor to allow pregnant women to monitor their baby’s movement and heart rate from home.
“The sensor picks up vibrations caused by the fetal heart. It looks like a small matchbox attached to the abdominal wall of the mother,” Negar Tavassolian, associate professor of electrical and computer engineering at the institute and co-author of the study, said.
The goal of the study is to provide mothers with new technology that allows them to constantly monitor their baby’s heartbeat and movements, and in turn, lower the rate of stillbirths.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, around 24,000 stillbirths are reported in the U.S. each year.
Many stillbirths start with a gradual decrease in fetal heartbeat and fetal movements, according to the study. Eventually, the researchers hope their device will be able to alert mothers to abnormal fetal activity, allowing them to seek medical attention sooner and have a better chance of saving the baby.
“It is our long-term goal to provide stillbirth prevention with our device,” Tavassolian said.
Dr. Paul Whitecar, maternal-fetal medicine specialist at Dixie Regional Medical Center, says that while there can be benefits to early detection of fetal distress, many times there is still nothing they can do.
“You have to be able to intervene for an issue if there is a problem and most of it ends up being beyond our control,” he said. “If someone had a big placental abruption or a cord accident, we have minutes. And even if you were in the hospital and that happened, you might not be able to save the baby.”
Pregnancy sensors using ultrasound are commonly used in hospitals and clinics to monitor fetal heart rate and movement. While not inherently dangerous, these devices do have the potential to harm the baby by heating fetal tissues when used for an extended period of time.
“It seems like it’s a very safe technology, but there’s stuff that we don’t know. So you still want to be careful with how much exposure you’re using over the long term,” Whitecar said. “Most of it is what we don’t know. In theory, ultrasound waves can potentially increase heat or temperature.”
The Stevens Institute of Technology fetal heart rate sensor, however, was designed using the same technology used to monitor the cardiovascular health of adults, Tavassolian said. The device reads vibrations rather than using ultrasound and is not harmful to mothers or babies.
Additionally, the sensors being used in clinics must be applied and monitored by a professional, while the researchers at Stevens Institute of Technology hope to make their device more user-friendly for mothers at home.
“Our sensor doesn’t require a lot of professional knowledge to be properly applied. It is also more convenient to wear because it could be electrode-free and gel-free. It could also be lower in cost and lighter in weight than current sensors in the market,” Tavassolian said.
But relying on families who are inexperienced in interpreting the data produced by the monitor has its downsides, Tiffany Hanson, director of DRMC Women and Newborn Services, said.
“A lot of this technology is dependent on the user making sure they’re using it appropriately. Unless the mom is educated as to where and how to use this technology, we may have a lot of people who come to the hospital concerned unnecessarily because they’re not using the technology correctly,” Hanson said.
Whitecar’s concern is that since proper use of the device could not be ensured by professionals while being used at home, there could be an increase in false positives and unnecessary preterm C-sections.
“If they come in saying, ‘well this strip doesn’t look good, let’s do a C section,’ we end up with an iatrogenic preterm birth, and I’m not sure we’ve done anyone any favors,” he said. “That’s something that needs to be studied. There are unanticipated consequences to everything that we do, and that might be one of them.”
So far the researchers have only tested the device on 10 patients, each around 40 weeks along in their pregnancy. After additional testing, they expect the technology will be effective in women starting at around 28 weeks, Tavassolian said.
Going forward, the team has plans to fine-tune the device so that it can be released for public use. Some of the challenges they are currently facing have to do with fixing the monitor so that it can better distinguish the difference between fetal and maternal heart rates and movements. The device also works best when the mother is lying down, and they are working to make it so that the sensor works well when the mother is in any position.
The full study by the Stevens Institute of Technology is published through the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers.
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