This $1 Invention Could Save Millions Of Babies’ Lives

The NIFTY cup helps premature infants and those born with problems, such as cleft palate, nurse.

Credit: The Seattle Times

Credit: The Seattle Times


Every year, hundreds of thousands of children die because they cannot breastfeed – mainly due to oro-facial cleft, which occurs in approximately 1.2 of every 1,000 live births worldwide. To remedy this conundrum, a trio of researchers worked together to develop an economical solution.

Experts at the University of Washington, Seattle Children’s, and the non-profit global health organization PATH, partnered to create a small spouted feeding cup which could prevent millions of high-risk infants in the developing world from starving.

The Seattle Times reports that the NIFTY cup – formally known as Neonatal Intuitive Feeding Technology – took five years to develop. Only recently was the invention shared with the world at the Women Deliver conference in Copenhagen. Because the inventors partnered with Laerdal Global Health, a non-profit manufacturer, the innovative cup will be available to hospital workers in Africa by later this year.

The soft, silicone bowl has a tiny reservoir and a spout aimed at helping premature infants and those born with problems, such as cleft palate, feed. It’s estimated to sell for about $1 apiece, but that’s a small price to pay to prevent millions of babies from dying.

Said Dr. Christy McKinney, acting assistant professor at the University of Washington’s School of Dentistry:

“A normal newborn has the developmental skills to suck, swallow and breathe in a coordinated manner. A preterm infant developmentally doesn’t have all those pieces in place.”

About 7.6 million preterm babies born in Africa and Asia each year have trouble feeding, PATH experts say. Worse, babies born with cleft palates can’t generate suction because of the disorder. Bottles don’t generally work on the newborns either.

As a result, family members and healthcare workers will use whatever they can find to feed the infants, including coffee cups, medicine cups, and even clean urine collection containers. More often than not, however, the results are disappointing. If babies don’t choke on the milk or aspirate, spillage usually occurs. “Most cups spill about a third of the breast milk,” says McKinney. That’s serious, considering that losing even two teaspoons of milk can mean the difference between adequate nutrition and starvation.

Credit: The Seattle Times

Credit: The Seattle Times

The NIFTY cup may help solve this conundrum. The spout is designed to allow a mother to express breast milk directly into the bowl and then fit it to a baby’s mouth. The most impressive aspect of the design is that it allows the infant to control the pace of the feeding, suckling almost normally.

“The cup was designed for what babies do,” said Dr. Michael Cunningham, director of the craniofacial center at Seattle Children’s.

Dr. Cunningham is responsible for conjuring the NIFTY cup concept. In 2007, during a trip to Ghana with Partners in African Cleft Training, a program that teaches African surgeons and other health-care providers how to treat the disorder, the physician was shocked by what he saw. Because the newborns with cleft palate couldn’t eat, they were suffering from malnutrition.

“I could not believe it,” he recalled. “I saw two babies die of starvation.”

Since then, it became a mission of his to help provide a solution to the problem. When he returned to the U.S., he met with McKinney, a former Peace Corps volunteer whose doctoral thesis focused on craniofacial problems. Together, they approached PATH with the idea. Later, Dr. Coffey joined in.

Though a similar cup, the Foley cup, already exists, the NIFTY cup is an improvement. According to Cunningham, it’s bigger, 40 milliliters, and made of silicone, a material durable enough to be boiled and sterilized in an autoclave over and over.

The NIFTY cup has been tested in a pilot study in India, where 20 babies were successfully fed. Another trial has yet to take place in Ethiopia, but the inventors believe that no formal evaluation is needed to validate the invention’s use.

Cunningham states:

“It doesn’t take much to know something works. We know it works.”

Thanks to dedicated healthcare professionals and business visionaries, millions of babies’ lives will be saved.

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