As we watch our wee preemie trying hard to grow big enough to come home, let’s give thanks to the lifesaving incubator—the substitute womb—they’re growing within. Incubators (sometimes called “open warmers”) help preemies grow by keeping them warm, safe from infection and allergens, and moderating the noise and light that can overwhelm a delicate preemie’s undeveloped nervous system.
Incubators protect lives.
Incubators are small boxes about the size of a crib and have a transparent plastic dome that seals, protecting the inside world from the outside world. Giraffe® and Isolette® are the two most common types.
Cords attached to various machines monitor what’s happening—both to your preemie and to their environment. Access holes (“ports”) through which you or the hospital staff put your hands to touch and care for the precious baby in that life-saving nest.
Inside, the temperature can be adjusted according to how well a preemie is regulating their own body temperature. Extremely premature (less than 28 weeks) and very premature babies (28-32 weeks gestation) have very dry skin—the incubator allows humidity control to passively feed moisture into delicate preemie skin.
Preemies usually have respiratory problems—many require nasal breathing tubes or CPAP machines. But once a preemie progresses beyond these, the incubator’s mechanized ventilation system feeds extra oxygen into the air until they’re fully ready to breathe on their own.
Types of Incubators
Some are for simple transport, some are double-walled. Some are open, some are closed. And some are printed. All are crucial.
- Closed box incubators minimize risk of infection and prevent interior air from losing the moisture that’s so important to hydrating a preemie’s extra-dry skin.
- Double-walled incubators have an extra wall of protection to control inside temperature and prevent moisture loss.
- Servo-controlled incubators use readings from sensors on the baby’s skin to automatically control both temperature and humidity levels.
- Open-box incubators (also known as “Armstrong incubators”) are for more developed babies who can breathe on their own but still need help maintaining their body temperature. This unit heats your baby from below while being open to the world around them, allowing your little one to experience more. And it allows easy access for hospital staff and family members.
- Portable incubators (“transport incubators”) are used for moving baby from one hospital to another, or even within a hospital.
The Handy Incubator
Preterm birth rates are expected to grow, especially in middle- to low-income countries. With the advent of 3-D printing technology, a new incubator called the “Handy” is already being tested, and surpassing the others in a number of tests.
It's made with inexpensive, lightweight materials (plastic, mylar, bamboo cloth) in a simple, effective way. And the design eliminates some of the problems associated with incubators—noise, heat fluctuations, oxygen control.
One of the major advantages of the Handy incubator is continuation of the mother-child bond—a relationship that’s heavily impacted by the separation that happens when a baby is in hospital incubators.
The Handy incubator is so lightweight, it can be carried by the mother. As its acceptance and production increases, this development offers a lot of hope for the millions of mothers in under-developed countries who today have limited access to lifesaving incubators.
Incubators are critical to saving preemies but—like every machine—they had to first be invented but can always be improved. Fortunately, by combining long-standing practices and modern technology, it’s increasingly possible to save tiny babies, keep them close to their mothers, and improve their care.