The risk of cot death could be cut with a cheap new type of baby monitor invented by scientists at Sussex University.
The device is like a Fitbit-style health tracker and works using electrical sensors made from a newly created liquid based on a material called graphene.
The university said that the monitors were “potentially life-saving”, likely to be affordable and had a range of possible uses.
Physicists at the Falmer campus said that updates and alerts on heart rates and breathing could be sent wirelessly to smartphones.
The scientists were inspired by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation which called for new affordable wearable health technologies for babies in places where resources were scarce.
Sussex University said that the device meant that “sick babies in remote parts of the world could be monitored from afar”.
The university said: “Parents at home, concerned about the risk of cot death, could keep track of their new babies’ heart and breathing rates with automatic updates to their smartphones, using ‘fitness tracker’-style technology built into baby sleep suits.
“The unobtrusive sensors – the most sensitive liquid-based devices to have ever been developed – could also be transformative for anyone with life-threatening conditions such as sleep apnea.
“In addition, because graphene is cheap to produce, the new breakthrough should be affordable.”
Alan Dalton, from the university’s School of Mathematics and Physical Sciences, and his team of physicists created the liquid made from an emulsion of graphene, water and oil which conducts electricity.
The breakthrough was described in a paper published last week in a scientific journal called Nanoscale.
The university said: “A prototype has been created and the team are talking to commercial sponsors to fund further research so that the product can be brought to market.
“Graphene is a two-dimensional material made from carbon atoms that is strong, flexible and conductive.
“When a channel or tube holding the liquid is stretched, even by a small amount, the conductivity of the liquid changes.
“This means that the respiration rates and pulses of people wearing the device can be tracked.
“Because the new liquid technology is so sensitive, it picks up very small signals when attached to the body.
“To monitor the pulses of babies at the moment, clunky sensors need to be attached to babies’ tiny feet or hands, which often fall off.
“The information is then relayed to a monitor by wires which can restrict the child’s movement.”
Professor Dalton’s technological development would see the monitoring done wirelessly and non-invasively with a fitness tracker-style band or even embedded in the fabric of a sensor vest for the baby to wear.
Professor Dalton said: “Using the conducting liquid emulsions we have developed, we will produce cheap, wearable sensors based on graphene.
“The devices will be comfortable, non-invasive and can provide intuitive diagnostics of breathing and heart rate.
“We will eventually have a suit that the baby can wear which will read-out all vital information wirelessly.
“We hope to see this made available within two to four years.
“In the laboratory we have created a sensor that has the potential to drastically improve early detection of life-threatening symptoms such as sleep apnea or cardiac arrhythmia, where constant monitoring with conventional equipment is challenging outside of the hospital environment.
“Of course the ultimate potential is wider than that. Anyone interested in tracking their heart or respiration rates – joggers, for example – may be interested to wear this technology within their exercise gear.
“I came up with the idea for the new graphene emulsion at the core of this technology while making salad dressing – which is a type of emulsion – at home with my daughter.
“It’s amazing how, as scientists, we take inspiration from the everyday world around us.”
Matthew Large, lead researcher on the project in the School of Mathematics and Physical Sciences, said: “What’s quite exciting about this new type of conductive liquid is how sensitive it is to being stretched.
Dr Large added: “The sensitivity of this new kind of strain sensor is actually much higher than a lot of existing technologies and it is the most sensitive liquid-based device ever reported by quite a significant margin.”
Professor Dalton said: “Graphene is very affordable as it can be produced using naturally occurring graphite so this could be rolled out on a big scale.
“This is good news for health services because the new technology will not be expensive to make and buy. It also means it should be affordable to individuals.”
The details are set out in a paper entitled “Functional liquid structures by emulsification of graphene and other two-dimensional nanomaterials” and published by Nanoscale.
It was authored by Matthew Large, Sean Ogilvie, Manuela Meloni, Aline Amorim Graf, Giuseppe Fratta, Alice King and Alan B Dalton, at Sussex University, and Jonathan Salvage, at Brighton University.
The team is collaborating with a business partner, Advanced Materials Development, to turn their idea into a commercial reality.