The recent breakthrough of a working artificial womb that can sustain life has caused major ripples within the NICU community and could be the breakthrough that is needed for how we deal with premature births. As a NICU Mum I have spent my fair share of time in the high dependency NICU ward with my son. Although he was born at 38 weeks’ gestation and therefore considered full term, he was surrounded by babies born weeks before him and fighting for their lives. Elijah probably weighed more than all four premature babies combined when he was in the ward and barely fitted into the incubator. It was astounding to see the difference in terms of size and appearance. To see these babies who were only a few ounces have so much medical equipment attached to them was distressing, and the risk for infection was high. To learn that a truly artificial womb has now been created could be considered as one of our age’s greatest achievements.
It is a common misconception that as we were in NICU that Elijah was premature, but with 1 in 9 babies being born early, the majority of the NICU ward is made up of premature babies. With 95% having issues further on in life, 90% of premature babies are born with chronic lung disease as physically their lungs are not developed enough to cope with being outside the womb. It tends to be that the babies remain sedated in their incubators to keep the equipment in place, and to stay calm. Incubators are designed to replace the womb and they do keep the baby safe and warm but what they cannot do is replace the role of the placenta by providing the baby with nutrients for growth and development. They are used every day, in nearly every hospital but the design and function of an incubator has not changed in years. This means that medical equipment such as tubes and needles have to be inserted into their very delicate bodies to sustain premature babies lives. Normally, the baby’s brain isn’t fully developed until around the 37-week mark, and this is when it passes the development milestones needed for survival outside of the mother. This is why so many premature babies may have learning difficulties or difficulty meeting their milestones.
The artificial womb could replace the mother’s womb by providing an alternative to an incubator and intrusive and restrictive medical equipment. It works by placing the baby in what looks like a giant sandwich bag filled with artificial amniotic fluid. It works exactly like the mother’s womb and placenta and carries the artificial fluid via oxygen carrying circuits via a bio bag. There is even what looks like an umbilical cord at the front of the bag. This has successfully been tested on premature baby lambs who not only survived but they thrived to full term. The lambs could then breathe independently and had good organ function and little to no complications. Other than the bag itself there is no other medical equipment that needs to be inserted or attached to the baby.
Those responsible say that human trials for the artificial womb could be ready in as little as 3- 5 years, after they have downsized the equipment to make it suitable for babies. It is the closest thing that would resemble the womb, and should provide the baby in a comforting environment to grow to full term as they would if they were still inside their mother. This is something you could imagine seeing in a Sci Fi film and does remind me of the scene in The Matrix where Keanu Reeves is ‘reborn’. Of course, like many scientific breakthroughs some will raise the ethical arguments that this could be used to push back the limits of viable gestation. It has been confirmed this is not the case, and is designed to treat premature babies in an environment which is closer to their mother’s womb. It has not been made to leave the mother redundant as she is needed to conceive and carry the baby in the early stages of pregnancy. It is only to be used if an early birth occurs. We live in an age of IVF and designer babies, and one could argue if we could sustain life in an artificial womb, could this eventually lead to a woman not being needed at all to have a baby? It very much a nature vs science argument. I think if the outcome with the human trials is as successful as it has been then it will revolutionise premature births. We would potentially have to revaluate how NICU departments are run to accommodate this when it is ready to be used but this may be a positive thing.
From a NICU Mum perspective it can be hard to see your baby attached to so much equipment, and to see them in an artificial bag maybe slightly surreal. Sometimes, it is the small things that get you through your stay in NICU – seeing them in a vest for the first time, changing their nappy, feeding them. This would be put on hold while the baby grew to full term and it may be the parents feel like they are missing out and that they are not actively involved within the care of their baby. If the parents receive proper support and counselling whilst their baby is in NICU (something that is severely lacking now), then I am very much behind this medical marvel. As aforementioned, the need for the parent to be involved within the care of their baby would be hard if not near impossible and I wonder the effect this may have on a new parent. It isn’t just the physical aspect of having a child in NICU, but also the mental health of the parent. However, with the right mental health support, the outcome could minimise medical conditions later down the line and may be a safer alternative to what is on offer now for premature babies and could result higher survival rates.
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