Newborns’ heart rates can be altered by the electromagnetic fields of incubators, according to a study released on May 1, 2008 in the Fetal and Neonatal Edition of Archives in Disease in Childhood, one of the BMJ specialty journals. It is not clear what the long term effects of this heart rate irregularity may be, but there is a chance that it will have implications for premature babies.

Incubators are often used to help babies who are born prematurely in the period after birth. They generally isolate the baby from various stressors, and maintain an appropriate temperature. Their motors notably can produce high energy electromagnetic fields (EMFs), but the effects of these EMFs on newborns has not been investigated.

Heart rate variability is a measure of the variation between the lengths of time of each heart beat in a certain period. It generally is considered to measure the activity of the autonomic nervous system, but is not universally accepted as an clinical indication for this control. Generally, a decreased heart rate variability predicts a poor prognosis for adult patients with heart disease, but it is not clear how variability affects the health of infants.

To analyze the immediate effects of incubators on heart rate variability, the research team monitored the heart rates of 43 newborn babies, none of whom was critically ill or premature. They were measured over three period of five minutes each, during which the incubator motor was left running, then switched off, and subsequently left running again.

Incubators can be noisy, so to examine the effects of the noise of the incubator, 16 of the newborns were exposed to “background noise” generated by a tape placed beside the baby’s head while the incubator motor was off. This tape recording reproduced the sound of the incubator fan and, just like the incubator procedure, was played for five minutes, paused for five minutes, and then turned back on for five minutes.

The babies exposed to the tape recordings showed very little difference in heart rate variability. In the babies tested with the incubator motors, there were significant differences in heart rate. However, this variability fell significantly during the periods when the incubator was running. The authors suggest that the differences in variability may be influenced by the powerful EMFs that are produced by these incubators.

Future directions might include modifications to the design of incubators. The authors compare this to exposure to EMFs in adults: “International recommendations and laws set levels to safeguard the health of workers exposed to electromagnetic fields: newborns should be worthy of similar protection.” However, the authors caution that it is not yet clear what the long term consequences are of this exposure to EMFs at such a young age.

Electromagnetic fields produced by incubators influence heart rate variability in newborns
Online First Arch Dis Child Fetal Neonatal Ed 2008;
doi: 10.1136/adc.2007.132738
C V Bellieni, M Acampa, M Maffei, S Maffei, S Perrone, I Pinto, N Stacchini, G Buonocore
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Written by Anna Sophia McKenney