Pneumatic Nipple Project 

 Individualized medicine for infant feeding physiology.


Introduction video 


 The goal of this project is to design a device capable of instantaneously adjusting its physical properties to facilitate safe and effective feeding in infants. Feeding problems in infants are incredibly common, especially in compromised populations such as those born prematurely. These challenges are so prevalent, that the primary criterion for discharge from a hospital after being born are effective oral feeding skills. Feeding difficulties can arise from multiple mechanisms, and different populations experience different challenges with feeding. Furthermore, we have a poor understanding of what performance is in infant feeding. Clinicians typically view ‘performance’ as ‘did an infant aspirate (choke)’, and design interventions to reduce the frequency of aspiration. However, healthy infants aspirate approximately 20% of the time, and have no other health issues, suggesting that the focus on aspiration may limit our understanding of feeding performance.

Despite the myriad of etiologies that lead to pathophysiology in infant feeding, there is essentially only one treatment, which is to decrease milk flow. However, this problem focuses only on the outcome of feeding (did an infant aspirate or not), and does not address the underlying mechanisms giving rise to that problem. Thus, these treatments must be chronic, and do nothing to facilitate improved performance in infants. We also have a poor understanding of what parts of the feeding system are capable of responding to variation in sensation, which hinders our ability to design effective interventions that target the specific mechanism that is giving rise to feeding problems. We know that variation in nipple properties leads to variation in infant physiology, but lack an understanding of how that variation is reflected by changes in the neuromotor system. 

In this project, we will design a nipple whose properties can be adjusted in real time while an infant is feeding. We will use this nipple to measure the potential for motor learning in different parts of the feeding system, and to match a nipple's properties to an infant's physiology to facilitate safe and effective feeding in an individual. This represents an important step forward in our understanding of and treatment for infant feeding challenges, as it moves us from a ‘one size fits all’ approach, to a more nuanced design whereby we can use individualized medicine to facilitate performance. Specifically, we will design a nipple that can be modified to instantaneously change milk flow rate and instantaneously alter nipple stiffness. Stretch goals could be to include an ability to vary nipple length, or to have a controllable valve to enable milk with variable properties (ie viscosities) to flow through the outlet.