Ben Franklin funding will support national launch of nurse-created products for preemies

05/22/2022

By Chara Fitch

Sawyers demonstrating the Nurture Rest. Photo: Neonatal Loving Kare

Nicole Sawyers understands the day-in, day-out struggles of having a premature baby in the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU). As a veteran NICU nurse, she’s witnessed the beautiful moments of NICU stays, as well as the hardships that come with premature birth and infant sickness. She says it didn’t take long to realize there was a need for developmental positioning aids in the NICU, to help infants increase oxygen levels, rest and, ultimately, heal. When she couldn’t find a solution, she decided to start a company to invent one. “I want to help create better outcomes for babies in the NICU,” she said.

Her experiences led her to start Dubois, Pennsylvania-based Neonatal Loving Kare (NLK), which creates positioning tools so babies can rest comfortably. In 2021, Neonatal Loving Kare won second place in the Ben Franklin Technology Partners Big Idea technology competition. Sawyers’ pitch won $20,000 from Ben Franklin funding and $2,500 in the People’s Choice Award. The funding set up manufacturing to mass-produce the products and Sawyers hopes to use more of the award money to get the product into hospitals across the United States. 

I began to think of what could get babies comfortable during their stay, to encourage them to sleep, eat and grow,” said Sawyers. “How could I reverse the cycle?”

“As a NICU nurse, you create various positioning aides, ranging from washcloths being used under the neck that keep the baby in position for good airway alignment, to blankets rolled to keep them on their sides or help with boundaries,” she said.

For a delicate, newborn patient, sleep positioning is more than simply being uncomfortable. Crying or moving around can mean a nurse is tied to their side during their shift, and the exertion can even lead to a baby needing a stronger oxygen supply or burning calories and losing weight.

I began to think of what could get babies comfortable during their stay, to encourage them to sleep, eat and grow,” said Sawyers. “How could I reverse the cycle?”

A demonstration of Neonatal Loving Kare’s Nurture Rest sleep positioning aid device and NICU Infant ID Bracelet. Photo: Neonatal Loving Kare

Kangaroo-quality Kare

These questions, sparked by a deep passion for helping infants and their families, led Sawyers to create the Nurture Rest, the first sleep positioning device that is FDA-approved for NICU use. The aid recreates an in-utero feel for infants and provides “kangaroo care” that’s similar to skin-to-skin bonding with Mom or Dad, in the isolette, while keeping the head, neck and spine aligned. The Nurture Rest mimics kangaroo care, helping the baby to stabilize heart rate, improve breathing patterns and gain valuable sleep time. Many times, this leads to a decrease in alarms and a decreased need for oxygen assistance.

Creating this product to help vulnerable babies has been Sawyers’ mission over the past years. She said, “The Nurture Rest has evolved over time with feedback from neonatologists and NICU nurses. It has taken me over three years to get the Nurture Rest ready for these critical babies to be positioned during their stay in the NICU.”

The Nurture Rest is only one of the products offered by Neonatal Loving Kare. Another product, Loving Arms, simulates the feeling of being held for newborn infants with reflux, colic or NAS. 

Nurturing relationships with the tiniest clients

Already, the company is hearing success stories from nurses and families who are using the products. One baby boy born at 25 weeks in Florida wasn’t able to lay on his back or side before being introduced to the positioning aid, which was causing torticollis and a flattened skull. Sawyers said, “I introduced the Nurture Rest to the nursing staff and his parents, and he slept four hours on his side and two on his back. The parents were so happy and the staff was amazed!”

A grandmother taking care of her grandson who was withdrawing from maternal drug use was another grateful recipient. “The baby would rest when he had the Loving Arms product on,” said Sawyers. “Grandma would call on the off shifts and make sure he was using it! In the end, the products not only worked for the babies but also [helps] the nurses and families. That is the end goal!”

Despite her successes, Sawyers is not ready to rest on her laurels. Her drive to support NICU nurses and families shows no sign of fading in the foreseeable future. She said, “My motivation every day is to change the way babies are cared for in the NICU. It is my passion, and when you find your true passion in life you don’t let it go. If a baby's stay has a better outcome then I have done something amazing!”

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