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16th October 2014

Nothing can replace a motherly hug – or can it?

The german Hohenstein Institute set out to make incubators for preterm babies more, well…motherly. So they created an ‘artifical womb’.

Stories like this leave me in awe. And my admiration is for nature usually: how very specifically and carefully our bodies are designed and how everything has its purpose and designated part that fits in a giant system which works perfectly. Until, something goes the way it shouldn’t. Whether it’s a preterm birth, a disease, or an accident, the body functions without flaw but is in many cases unable to repair itself. That’s when science steps in.

Every 10th baby in the world is born premature. That adds up to to half a million preterm babies in Europe alone. For many, the shock of birth is followed by weeks or even months spent in an incubator, an artificial environment created as a replacement for the womb. These are the two keywords: ‘artificial’ and ‘replacement’; as much as science tries, mother nature is tough to mimic.

Most incubators are like a highly advanced temperature control: their primary function is to keep the baby (who cannot regulate her own warmth) at a standard temperature and to protect her from noise, light, infections. Pretty impressive stuff in its own right, but its not quite a womb.

Why not?

Although technologies have evolved a lot in the past decades, the sense and feel of a womb was never replicated. The Hohenstein Institute in Germany  has set out to change that and has built an artificial womb, developed from a special material which can be placed within the incubator to give the feel of a motherly womb.

And it’s not just about the touch. Research has shown that the sensory stimuli of the womb (or rather the lack of it) can be associated with issues in the baby’s brain development. Many preterm babies grow up with difficulty judging distance, controlling muscle tension or executing complex movements. Scientists at the Institute hope that the artificial womb they have created will help these babies get a feel of the natural womb and decrease, if not eliminate many of those developmental issues.

It wasn’t easy getting there though. “material properties of the material, such as its feel, elasticity and resistance, have to simulate conditions in the womb as realistically as possible… the best combination of fibre and fabric structure had to be chosen” Claudia Balluff, a scientist involved in the project at the Hohenstein Institute explained.

More? Yes there’s more

In addition to creating a textile which feels like a real womb and creating a space that most resembles it,  the scientists are working on incorporating other important features preterm babies are missing out on. “We are going a step further and will additionally incorporate the mother’s voice and heartbeat into the artificial uterus”. Claudia said.

More than a just a soothing sound, it’s a critical part in human development.

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