In 2012, a leading researcher into the feeding of NICU patients described to us the deep problems caused by feeding bottles used in hospitals and by mothers. We learned that most preemies and many term babies struggle with feeding early on. And we learned that a relatively simple change could solve the problem. We were intrigued.
So we spent time designing a better bottle for premature babies and started thinking about the challenge of going up against entrenched bottle companies. This looked like an uphill battle except that we had a secret weapon. We knew how to monitor a baby’s feeding performance. All we had to do was make a product with the smarts to do the job and we could provide parents with reassurance and guidance. We could de-stress the bottle feeding experience.
We believe the evidence is clear that breast-feeding and mother’s milk are the ideal combination from a health perspective. But there are many circumstances where a bottle is the only option whether as a respite, convenience or choice.
Newborn babies autonomically feed. But feeding is the biggest physical challenge a baby faces. They need skill, strength and stamina to accomplish the task and any or all of these factors may be inadequately developed or compromised, especially in preemies. But we know a baby tires easily. We know it switches rapidly between states of alertness and focus. We know that it is easily distracted and disturbed. The bottle should, quite simply, give our baby what it needs; the closest experience to mother’s breast.
Newborn babies are notoriously hard to read. They do not make their needs or their state of mind and body obvious. Parents often need help to understand their baby and to feed it well. Physicians rely on observation and experience. When feeding is not going well, there is a role for science to give us the information we need to respond to the problem. When it is going well, technology can give us the comfort and confirmation that it is. We need feedback. Is the baby actually taking milk? Is it feeding rapidly and well? Has it slowed down? Has it stopped? Is it time to end the feeding?
Tracking can be very useful. When, where and for how long were the feedings? How much milk was taken? Did the feeding go well? Is the quality of feedings improving or not? From tracking comes insight. Does my baby lack skill? Does it lack stamina? Does it lack both? What should I do in response? Is it time to get help?
Exposing the Smart Feeder idea to prominent people in the field of newborn feeding changed everything. We realized it will be the first feeding data device. We learned that professionals rely on observation, experience and guidelines to help mothers. We learned that there is heavy reliance on “reading” the baby and that cue-based feeding has been widely adopted to provide structure and organization to observations.
As we further exposed our ideas to practitioners, we learned that there is a strong interest in using the data to screen babies for oral feeding ability within NICUs and infant nursing in general. Better screening could make gavage feeding less prevalent and ensure that babies reached full oral feeding before discharge.
It also became apparent that collecting population data could be the beginning of research into the efficacy of methods and interventions and a way of setting health standards. The data might trigger the research and exploration needed to develop better treatments.