Trendsetters: Better Baby Health
High-tech has come to the high-touch task of feeding infants who are unable to suck properly for nourishment. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), approximately 10 percent of U.S. babies born in 2016 were premature – before 37 weeks. Because these preemies typically have feeding problems, they are tube fed for a period of time.
The standard for determining a baby’s readiness to feed has been putting a finger in the baby’s mouth to see if sucking occurs. Now, an Atlanta-based medical device startup called NFANT Labs is applying 21st century technology and data analysis to improve feeding care and help babies transition faster to normal feeding.
“Feeding is the most complex thing babies do,” says Lou Malice, CEO of NFANT Labs. “We try to determine what each baby needs to be a good feeder and to thrive.”
NFANT Labs was formed in 2013 by Gilson Capilouto, a leading University of Kentucky (UK) baby feeding specialist, and Tommy Cunningham, a then-UK doctoral candidate in biomechanics. Capilouto theorized that babies’ feeding issues in the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) could be related to weak and uncoordinated swallowing, but there was no objective way to test her hypothesis.
Working with her, Cunningham developed the first device to measure babies’ feeding capabilities and capture data. After his move to Georgia and affiliation with the Advanced Technology Development Center (ATDC) at Georgia Tech, he refined the device, and the nfant Feeding Solution became the first IoT (Internet of Things) medical device cleared by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for the NICU.
The device is a smart bottle with a nipple containing a probe for measuring babies’ tongue movements to collect data on swallowing. The probe connects to a tablet via Bluetooth, and NICU clinicians can view the tongue movement and its changes over time. With this device, physicians are able to determine when a baby can transition to regular oral feeding and leave the NICU.
According to Malice, approximately 8 percent of seemingly healthy, full-term babies also have feeding problems once they go home. These issues can result in weight loss and a return to the hospital’s pediatric intensive care unit.
Currently, 16 hospital NICUs across the country are using the nfant Feeding Solution, and Malice estimates hundreds of babies have benefited. The device was also a finalist in this year’s South by Southwest Impact Pediatric Health competition, which showcased children’s healthcare innovations.
Taking the technology further, NFANT Labs recently rolled out an analytics system to accompany its smart bottle. The nfant Analytics feeding platform applies machine-learning algorithms to the preemies’ feeding data to provide comparisons with normally feeding babies.
“As the data set gets bigger, we’re learning more about how babies behave,” says Malice. “That will give us the capability to benchmark for best practices and help clinicians make decisions easier. We want to make sure these kids get as much help as they possibly can to live a normal life.”