Every year, 15 million babies worldwide are born preterm and over one million of those babies die shortly after birth while others suffer lifelong disabilities, according to a new report from the March of Dimes Foundation, the World Health Organization, and others.
The Born Too Soon report finds that prematurity is the leading cause of newborn deaths and the second leading cause of death after pneumonia in children under the age of five.
Inequalities in survival rates from country to country are staggering. Half of the babies born at 24 weeks (four months early) survive in high-income countries, but in low income settings, half the babies born at 32 weeks (two months early) die, the report finds.
The risk of a neonatal death due to complications of preterm birth is at least 12 times higher for an African baby than for a European baby.
Yet worldwide, 75 percent of preterm-baby deaths could be avoided if basic needs such as warmth, breastfeeding support, and care for infections and breathing difficulties were met – no need for expensive neonatal intensive care equipment.
And this is where San Francisco, CA-based company Embrace comes in. The company, founded by a group of Stanford students, is behind a new portable incubator—think mini sleeping bag—which can provide lifesaving heat to newborns.
Eighty percent of babies who need incubators only need them to keep warm. Preterm babies are particularly vulnerable to hypothermia because they don’t have enough fat to regulate their own body temperatures. To a hypothermic infant, being in a room-temperature climate feels similar to an adult being in freezing cold water.
The Embrace infant warmer contains a removable sheet of Paraffin wax which can be melted with a heater or by pouring boiling water over it. Once heated, the sleeping bag will remain a constant 98.6 degrees Fahrenheit for four hours, helping babies retain heat. The warmer can be reheated at any time.
India-based Bang Design produced the industrial design for the Embrace. Its aim was to produce a small, portable unit for easy transport while maximizing the material that can be heated and allowing for monitoring while in use.
Because the heater is physically and metaphorically at the infant’s side, the goal was to design a device that was soft and approachable, without compromising on the technology needed to keep the phase change material adequately warm, Bang Design says.
The warmer can be washed in boiling water and is seamless so bacteria can’t collect inside.
Modern-day incubators can cost upward of $20,000, and rural hospitals in developing countries cannot afford such expensive machines. As well, women in rural villages often have their babies at home and have no access to a hospital.
The Embrace infant warmer costs less than $200, and can be used by rural clinics to transport premature babies to city hospitals, or by mothers in remote villages who can’t get their baby to a hospital.
“Over the next five years we hope to help and save over a million babies,” says Embrace co-founder Jane Chen.
The Embrace warmer went into mass production in March and orders are mounting globally. The Embrace team is particularly focused on India, but hopes to provide the warmer to any region in need.
On its blog, Embrace recently posted a story about Baby Long at the Little Flower Orphanage in Beijing. Baby Long arrived at the orphanage at two weeks old and weighed just two pounds. He was hypothermic and needed thermal stabilization immediately. He used the Embrace warmer for 30 days straight. Now, at seven months, Baby Long is healthy, happy, and super interactive, according to Chen.
And Embrace has recently partnered with Teso Safe Motherhood Project (TSMP) to bring the warmers to babies in Soroti, Uganda. Like many rural communities in Africa, there were no working incubators or radiant warmers in the area, and up until now management of hypothermia often meant resorting to hot water bottles or charcoals.