Monitoring babies’ movements using the FeHeMo vest

Professor Alexander Heazell, Dr Ed Johnstone, Dr Anura Fernando, Dr Jayawan Wijekoon

Researchers supported by Tommy’s have created a way of keeping track of babies’ heart rates and movements in the womb over long periods of time, using a special vest.

At the moment, babies in the womb have their heart rate checked occasionally to see if everything is ok – usually at each antenatal appointment from 18 weeks onwards. However, this only gives us a brief snapshot of the baby’s life. These short checks also haven’t had any noticeable effect on stopping stillbirths. 

There has been increasing coverage of the dangers of home dopplers that can be used by mothers-to-be to listen to their baby’s heartbeat. These devices can often lead to false assurance or unnecessary stress. Campaigning by Kicks Count resulted in a bill being passed by MPs which proposes a ban on the sale of home dopplers in the UK. 

A better approach would be to monitor a baby’s heart over a longer period of time. Working with Manchester Integrating Medicine and Innovative Technology (MIMIT), we have created a special device that can do this. This is the Fetal Heart and Movement, or FeHeMo vest. This uses sensors held in a fabric vest both to listen to the baby’s heart, and keep track of its movements in the womb. The FeHeMo vest is designed to record the baby’s heartbeat, which can then be listened to by a doctor or midwife. 

We have created a final working version of the vest, and have been testing it throughout 2017. So far, 20 women with healthy pregnancies have worn the heart rate monitors at home. We are happy to report that wearing the monitors for long periods of time did nothing to increase the mothers’ stress levels. Plus, the fetal heart trace that we received from the monitors was of good quality. 

This information has allowed us to plan further studies of the vest on mums-to-be at high risk of pregnancy complications. These are planned to begin in January 2018. 

This work would not have been possible without the collaboration of organisations supporting medical development. We have worked closely with MIMIT, Trustech, the  Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) and the University of Manchester Intellectual Property Fund to make this device possible.

Funding

This study takes place in a Tommy's centre and is funded by Tommy's, Manchester: Integrating Medicine and Innovative Technology (MIMIT), and the University of Manchester

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