Infants born prematurely struggle with undeveloped lungs, inadequate digestive systems and other physical challenges associated with coming into the world too soon. Research now suggests that their early exposure to a mechanical, uncomfortable world may cause them to suffer from sensory or motor deficiencies as they develop. The womb is not an incubator; it is an environment in which a baby is surrounded, warmed, stimulated by movement and comforted by the sound of its mother’s heartbeat and voice. To simulate comparable sensations, the Hohenstein Institute in Bönnigheim, Germany, has launched a research project to develop an artificial uterus as a form of “textile therapy” for premature infants. Industry partners include Beluga-Tauchsport GmbH, a manufacturer of medical and health products for children, and M. Zellner GmbH, manufacturer of fabrics and spacer materials for mattresses and orthotic devices.
So far, the research has identified several features of an effective artificial womb, and it seems like a demanding formula. The material properties of the textile, such as its feel, elasticity and resistance, must be as close to the womb as possible. The best combination of fiber and fabric structure will be important as well. The faux womb will need a mechanical textile actuator to provide sensory and motor stimuli and a sense of equilibrium to promote development of the infant’s brain. Finally, the sound of the mother’s heartbeat and voice both soothe and stimulate infants in the womb, and the artificial womb must have this capability. Despite these ambitious criteria, the research team expects to have the first prototype as early as 2015. Find out more at www.hohenstein.de.