European Times: Brussels

How baby pyjamas adapted from spacesuits may prevent cot deaths
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The Independent Online

It is a question which must have been asked by thousands of parents: how come we have the technology to put a man on the moon but not to predict when a baby is at risk from cot death? Seven years ago the same thought occurred to a Belgian physicist and the result has led to a breakthrough which could save many infant lives.

In his university office in Brussels, Professor Manuel Paiva speaks with scientific precision. "Everybody knows there is a problem with cot deaths," he says. "I was surprised that, with the technology there is, there are no really effective monitors. It does not look too difficult to build something that detects when the child stops breathing." In space, after all, there was already something similar. The university had helped to develop a system to monitor astronauts' movements in zero gravity with the aid of highly sophisticated sensors.

The conceptual leap was to build similar technology into garments more likely to be chosen on the basis of their colour, pattern or washing instruction – baby pyjamas.

When Project Mamagoose began few parents were willing to volunteer their babies for research. So one of the first guinea pigs was Professor Paiva's grandson who, at the age of six months, slumbered peacefully in his space-age sleepsuit, oblivious to his contribution to medical history.

Now Verhaert Design and Development, a company based near Antwerp which is developing the project with ULB university, says that the Mamagoose pyjamas could be in use in hospitals within 18 months. Ultimately they may be on general sale.

In Britain four out of every 10,000 babies suffer cot death, or sudden infant death syndrome, most of them at less than six months of age.

Although the causes are unknown the result is a sudden and unexpected respiratory failure. While there are monitors in existence they suffer from significant faults.

First they use electrodes which are applied directly to the skin and are uncomfortable for the baby. Second, they are prone to false alarms; parents already suffering from sleepless nights have been known to disconnect them deliberately.

Mamagoose has disposed with the first of these difficulties and is well on the way to solving the second.

The pyjamas have five special sensors positioned over the breast and stomach: three to monitor heartbeat the others to check breathing. The (washable) technology is enclosed in cloth and has no direct contact with the baby.

The sensors are attached to a control unit which processes the data, scanning the respiration pattern to detect unexpected, and possibly threatening, developments. When it believes the situation is becoming dangerous an alarm is signalled. By using internet technology, babies who would otherwise be in hospital could be monitored at home.

Professor Paiva, is modest about his creation, arguing that it attracts more attention than other medical space spin-offs (such as imaging equipment) because it is a more visible product. He sees Mamagoose as a useful medical tool but not the final frontier for cot-death research and says more work is needed.

Statistically, he adds, cot death remains rare and the best advice for parents is to put their babies to sleep lying on their backs, not to smoke and not to heat the baby's room too much. For Stefaan Devolder, business unit manager of Verhaert, the project has special poignancy because his sister lost a baby to cot death last year. "This is something that comes from space that could save lives," he says. "It is a very attractive idea."

Attractive and important, but not particularly cheap. The pyjamas are likely to sell at anything up to £1,500 a pair, at which price Mamagoose may save lives but will never dent profits at Mothercare.