Waikato invention could prevent skin injury in premature babies

Premature babies are covered in the most fragile and underdeveloped skin. Even with the greatest care, skin injuries are common.

Premature babies, born at 30 weeks or under, have such fragile skin that around half will suffer some form of skin injury during their hospital stay.

They are often too small to feed and need drips for fluids and medication. They're held in place by splints and sticking plasters, but even careful removal can cause problems.

"What happens when we take those plasters off is that we can cause skin injury," says Waikato DHB nurse practitioner, Deborah Harris.

"We can easily take off the top couple of layers and some of the data suggests we can take off 70 percent. One of the really big problems with skin injury is that you open the baby up to infection."

It's a global problem, so Harris and the team at the Waikato Hospital neonatal intensive care unit set about finding a solution.

They joined up with industrial designer Mike Williams, from MWDesign, and after two years they came up with the Pepi Splint.

"It's the same sort of silicone that prosthetic ears and noses are made from," Williams says.

"It has a super-mesh inside it, which is a mesh that allows you to cut and trim the silicone... it's got a rigid member in there so you can bend it and flex it... but most importantly it's really soft."

The Pepi Splint wraps around the baby's arm or foot to hold the drip in place, and the sticking plaster wraps around the silicone, not the babies skin.

Harris says it could help thousands of premature babies.

"I'm excited that we might be able to reduce injury," she says.

"I don't know that we're going to be able to do that yet but I suspect we might because the whole idea about the Pepi Splint is that there will be no plasters on the baby, at all."

They're about to launch a study, using 15 premature babies, to review the design.

If the concept proves successful, it could be used in hospitals around the world, and not only for newborns, but for fragile older patients too.