Babies born very prematurely often lack the ability to make the sucking motions needed to get milk from their mothers or from bottles, so researchers from Florida State University have designed an electronic pacifier to help. The pacifier senses when the baby is sucking correctly, and plays a musical lullaby to reward and encourage the baby to continue.
The pacifier is outfitted with proprietary piezo sensing technology that detects the baby's sucking motion. Feedback algorithms determine when the motion is correct, and a signal is sent via wire to a speaker that plays a soothing song when the baby gets the breathe-suck-swallow reflex right. The system can be calibrated to each baby's needs.
The inventor of the device, music professor Jayne Standley, says some babies are able to start feeding after using the electronic pacifier for only 15 minutes. Her studies have shown that infants exposed to musical reinforcement increase their sucking rates up to 2.5 times.
Powers Device Technologies in Saint Johns, Florida bought the rights to the device and this week announced it had begun selling it to hospitals. The company plans to start mass producing it for parents as well. The device has been dubbed Pacifier Activated Lullaby, or PAL, and has received approval from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA).
The device is aimed primarily for very premature babies who are having trouble taking milk. Mothers often instinctually feel the need to feed their babies as soon as possible after birth, and when an infant has trouble connecting with his mother's breast or the bottle, it can be extremely stressful for everyone, particularly the child.
A device like an electronic pacifier at least gives parents something to do to help their baby while he or she is still learning to eat. If the device provides some comfort to the baby in the interim, all the better, especially for preemies with health problems who have to undergo stressful medical procedures.
A tool like this may also be useful for colicky or particularly fussy babies who need extra soothing once they come home from the hospital. I just hope it doesn't become a crutch for overtired parents of full-term babies who would simply rather an electronic device do all the singing and soothing for them.
Photo credit: Florida State University
Emily Waltz is a contributing editor at Spectrum covering the intersection of technology and the human body. Her favorite topics include electrical stimulation of the nervous system, wearable sensors, and tiny medical robots that dive deep into the human body. She has been writing for Spectrum since 2012, and for the Nature journals since 2005. Emily has a master's degree from Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and an undergraduate degree from Vanderbilt University. She aims to say something true and useful in every story she writes. Contact her via @EmWaltz on Twitter or through her website.