Good Vibrations Help Preemies Breathe

One of the most heartbreaking things I’ve ever witnessed is seeing a newborn struggle to breathe. You want to help with that next breath, but what can you do? For premature infants, difficulties breathing can hamper early life. This problematic breathing, known as “apnea of prematurity” can include disrupted breathing, slowed heart rate, and low oxygen levels in the blood. The good doctors at Beth Israel Hospital in Boston, Massachusetts, a Harvard hospital, decided to try out a new technology called “stochastic resonance therapy” to help premature infants struggling to breathe. (Find their research article here).

From 2012 to 2014, the group of researchers treated 36 premature infants with the novel treatment. They placed a special mattress that gently vibrated under the infants, much like those massage chairs at the Better Image store. The infants were born very early- at 30 weeks of pregnancy on average. The infants included in the study had shown signs of struggling to breathe before they were enrolled- either an episode of a break in breathing (apnea), or slow heart rate, or low oxygen level.  The researchers hoped to see a decrease in these three signs of distressed breathing when the vibrating mattress was turned on. The mattress vibrated for 30 minutes and then turned off for 30 minutes, and the whole treatment lasted three to four hours. Each infant received one or two treatments.

The researchers compared the number of breaks in breathing, slow heart rate, and low oxygen level when the mattress was on compared to when the mattress was off. Using this study design, the researchers were able to compare each infant to him or herself. When the mattress was vibrating, the babies had half as many breaks in breathing. Episodes of low heart rate were 20% better with the vibration, and the babies had fewer and shorter episodes of low oxygen levels with the therapy.

Currently, doctors are left to using caffeine or ventilators and masks to support premature infant’s breathing. Now, “stochastic resonance therapy” offers a new possibility for a non-invasive, non-pharmaceutical treatment for apnea of prematurity.