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Safe Infant Sleeping Gets a Boost
The oval, pod-shaped device with sensors is designed to provide a safe sleeping environment for infants (Photo by Peter Jakubwski)

Many parents sleep with their infants.

That’s a reality in spite of public service campaigns, recommendations from pediatricians and horrific news stories about co-sleeping deaths.

It’s also why a UWM nurse researcher, an engineering faculty member and a team of students have developed a novel approach to co-sleeping safety – a prototype for a protective “sleep pod” for infants.

“If we have the scientific and technological means to enable humans to live in space for months at a time, we should be able to use science and technology to keep babies safe in different sleeping environments,” says Jennifer Doering, associate professor of nursing.

Doering’s interest in safe sleeping for infants grew out of her studies of postpartum depression and parental sleep deprivation in impoverished areas of Milwaukee. She is a member of the Wisconsin Task Force on Perinatal Depression and served as a Robert Wood Johnson Nurse Faculty Scholar from 2008-11.

In her home visits, she found that cultural preferences and simple exhaustion often led to co-sleeping. “People were asking for ways to make sleeping safer even if they chose to share a sleep surface with their baby,” she says.

Public health and medical organizations encourage a zero-tolerance policy toward co-sleeping, but that just doesn’t work for many families, says Doering. “Babies were still dying.” On average, one to two infants in Milwaukee County die each month from unsafe sleeping environments.

Spurred by this crisis, Doering began pursuing the idea of a device that would make co-sleeping safe for infants. She soon realized she would need technical design help to make the “I-SleepPod” a reality. “I’m a nurse, not an engineer.”

Then she met Naira Campbell-Kyureghyan, an associate professor of engineering with a specialty in safety and injury prevention.

From ‘zero tolerance’ to leading science

Mothers themselves, Campbell-Kyureghyan and Doering agreed that educational campaigns alone were not going to solve the co-sleeping issue. A safety device made good sense. “We have rules and regulations on construction sites, but hard hats are still required,” Campbell-Kyureghyan says.

Some products that can be used for co-sleeping, like bumpers, rails, mini-bassinets and infant travel beds, are already commercially available. None are designed with tested safety mechanisms and may give parents a false sense of security, says Doering. The free Pack ‘n Play portable cribs distributed to parents who are low income were often used for storing baby supplies rather than for sleeping infants.

“The death of a baby is tragic, so this is an emotionally laden issue,” Doering says. “Sometimes that impedes our ability to see other options that could be a solution to the problem.” Together, Doering and Campbell-Kyureghyan sought those other options, aided by a $35,000 Catalyst grant, a UWM Research Foundation award to seed promising R&D in the sciences and engineering, They worked with an interdisciplinary team of students to design and test a research-based sleeping pod. The student team included engineering product design students Patrick Dix, Tim Korinek, James Zoromski, Karl Bachhuber Beam and Helen Hermus, a senior nursing student.

Their approach, says Doering, is to meet the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) policy for a safe sleep environment, one that includes a separate, dedicated sleep space that is firm, flat and free of blankets, pillows and toys.

An I-SleepPod with local and global appeal

That blend of science, technology and practicality shaped the prototype I-SleepPod: a portable, protective, oval pod with a molded plastic exterior and a dense foam interior. The pod has a face-protection feature, equipped with wireless sensors designed to alert sleeping adults if they start to roll over onto it or if blankets or pillows fall on a sleeping baby. The UWM Research Foundation has applied for a patent for the I-SleepPod.

The goal is to create three versions. One is designed for use in impoverished countries where insect-borne diseases are common. This low-cost, no-sensor model has netting to protect sleeping infants from insects. A $50 model comes equipped with sensors and more extensive features and design. The team is hopeful that donors might help bring down the cost for families that don’t have $50. More affordable technologies might also help trim the price.

The researchers will begin testing the product on sensor-equipped dummies this spring and they hope to bring a final product to market within a year.

The two scientists believe the work they are doing can coexist with educational approaches used by health departments, and is more productive than legislation seeking to criminalize parents involved in co-sleeping deaths.

“Using the word ‘co-sleeping’ makes the problem an individual problem with behavior rather than an issue with the environment. This is precisely the argument Dr. Campbell-Kyureghyan and I are making – trying to change the discourse in a direction that will result in real innovation and forward movement,”

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