Jennifer Doering’s interest in safe sleeping for infants grew out of her studies of postpartum depression and parental sleep deprivation in impoverished areas of Milwaukee. In her visits to homes, she found cultural preferences and simple exhaustion often led to co-sleeping. “People were asking for ways to make sleeping safer even if they chose to share a sleep surface with their baby,” says the UWM associate professor of nursing.
Public health and medical organizations encourage a zero-tolerance policy toward co-sleeping, but that just doesn’t work for many families, says Doering. “Babies were still dying.” On average, two infants in Milwaukee County die each month from unsafe sleeping environments.
Spurred by this crisis, Doering began pursuing the idea of a device that would make co-sleeping safe for infants. She soon realized she would need technical design help to make it a reality. “I’m a nurse, not an engineer,” she says.
Then she met Naira Campbell-Kyureghyan, an associate professor of engineering with a specialty in safety and injury prevention.
Campbell-Kyureghyan, who like Doering is a mother, agreed that educational campaigns alone were not going to solve the co-sleeping issue. A safety device made good sense. “We have rules and regulations on construction sites, but hard hats are still required,” she says.
Some products that can be used for co-sleeping, like bumpers, rails, mini-bassinets and infant travel beds, are already commercially available, but none are designed with tested safety mechanisms and may give parents a false sense of security, says Doering.
With the help of a Catalyst grant, a UWM Research Foundation award to seed promising research and development in the sciences and engineering, Doering and Campbell-Kyureghyan began working with an interdisciplinary team of four student engineers and a senior nursing student to design and test a sleeping pod backed by research.
The resulting prototype is a portable, protective, oval pod with a molded plastic exterior and a dense foam interior. The pod has a face-protection feature, equipped with wireless sensors designed to alert sleeping adults if they start to roll over onto it or if blankets or pillows fall on a sleeping baby. The UWM Research Foundation has applied for a patent for the I-SleepPod.
The two professors believe the work they are doing can coexist with educational approaches used by health departments. Says Doering: “The death of a baby is tragic, so this is an emotionally laden issue. Sometimes that impedes our ability to see other options that could be a solution to the problem.”