Addressing Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome

See how WPI students put theory into practice through projects.

The Great Problems Seminar introduces first-year students to the benefits and challenges of team-based project work. This project was completed in 2020 by students in a seminar, called Heal the World, advised by Reeta Rao, professor of biology and biotechnology, and Elisabeth Stoddard, associate teaching professor of environmental and sustainability studies.

The Students

Kendall Begin ’24 (Environmental Engineering) and Mikaela Enax ’24, Tera Keang ’24, and Lauren Vitellaro ’24 (all Biomedical Engineering majors)

The Background

Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome (NAS), observed in some infants who were exposed to opioid drugs in the womb, is a growing problem; in Massachusetts, it is seen in 13.8 of every 1,000 births. Affected babies have symptoms of withdrawal, including tremors, vomiting, irritability, diarrhea, and temperature instability. Kangaroo mother care (KMC), in which an infant is placed against its mother’s chest with skin-to-skin contact, can sooth babies with NAS, help them sleep, and improve their heart rate, breathing, oxygen saturation levels, and weight gain. This can lead to an earlier hospital discharge.

The Challenge

For a variety of reasons, including a lack of education about the technique, not all mothers of infants with NAS are able to practice KMC. Existing substitutes, including volunteer cuddlers and technology that simulates KMC, are inadequate or have significant drawbacks, including hospital staffing shortages and high costs.

The Goal

Design technical and educational solutions to overcome the physical and social challenges of providing KMC to infants who critically need it.

Recommended Solution

Technical: Adapt the mamaRoo, a rocking infant seat commonly found in hospitals, by inserting a thermal pad with sensors so it can respond to an infant’s body temperature, and adding technology for generating white noise and reproducing the sound of the mother’s heartbeat and breathing.

Educational: Develop videos and infographic posters about NAS that emphasize KMC and other non-pharmacological interventions geared toward mothers. With medical, philanthropic, and industry partners, solutions will be developed and tested through clinical trials.

Next Steps

Address limitations (unequal access, need for training, reliance on a device for comfort), survey hospital staff, contact manufacturers, and research clinical trials.

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