Developing a sensor to monitor a baby’s health during labour

If a baby isn’t getting enough oxygen during labour, it can lead to brain damage. Our researchers are developing a brand-new sensor that could provide a reliable and non-invasive way to continuously monitor the health of babies during labour.
  • Authors list

    Professor Fiona Denison, Professor Marc Desmulliez, Professor Michael Crichton, Dr Gerard Cummings, Claudia Ferreira

    Start date: March 2018
    End date: March 2021

This project took place at our Edinburgh centre which operated between 2008 and 2021.

Why do we need this research?

Babies need to be carefully monitored during labour to make sure that they are getting enough oxygen, as too little oxygen can lead to brain damage and even stillbirth. This monitoring is normally done using cardiotocography – or CTG – where the baby’s heartbeat is recorded by using plastic pads strapped to the mother’s womb. However, this isn’t always a reliable way of telling whether a baby is in distress. Sometimes, CTG abnormalities can be seen when there are no underlying problems with the baby, and this can lead to babies being delivered by c-section unnecessarily.

We need to develop better ways of continuously monitoring the health of the unborn baby during labour to make sure that the baby is delivered by c-section quickly in the event of life-threatening problems, while also reducing the number of women having unnecessary surgery.

What’s happening in this project?

An alternative way to tell if the baby is getting enough oxygen is by measuring the amount of a chemical called lactate in the blood. This is currently done by making a small cut into the baby’s scalp while it is still in the womb. However, this is difficult to do and very invasive, and only gives one ‘snapshot’ of the baby’s lactate levels.

Our researchers are developing a new way to continuously measure lactate levels in the baby. They are developing a sensor that attaches to the skin and measures the lactate in the baby’s scalp, safely and non-invasively. The team want to incorporate this sensor into an existing device – called a fetal scalp electrode – that attaches to a baby’s scalp through the vagina and allows direct and continuous monitoring of a baby’s heartbeat. 

So far, the team have shown that they can ‘print’ an enzyme onto a sensor that breaks lactate down into a molecule that generates a tiny electrical current; the more lactate present in the baby’s skin, the more electrical current the sensor generates. However, this sensor is too big and too rigid to use with the fetal scalp electrode. The team therefore want to develop a new, smaller sensor that can be incorporated into the fetal scalp electrode to allow real-time, continuous monitoring of the amount of lactate on the baby’s skin.

What difference will this project make?

This innovative project could result in a new way to monitor the health of a baby during labour. Being able to continuously monitor the health of the baby will help to ensure that any problems can be acted on as quickly as possible, making sure that the baby has the best chance of a healthy life.

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