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The Baby Incubator: The Innovation That Saved My Daughter's Life

A modern-day baby incubator

A modern-day baby incubator

What Is a Baby Incubator?

A baby incubator creates an artificial environment for infants who are too small or sick to maintain a sufficiently warm body temperature to ensure survival. Incubators also help protect an infant from noise, light, and germs that may cause sickness and infections. For a premature baby, this box is the next best thing to being inside its mother's belly.

As a mother of a premature baby, I had a firsthand experience watching my daughter live inside an incubator for several weeks. It was truly amazing how many functions these boxes serve to perform, and it just made sense that this is what should be done for a baby like my daughter, who still needed the protection of growing inside me but was unable to have it. Shortly after my daughter was born, a friend of mine mentioned that she had heard that incubators were first used in carnivals to keep premature babies alive and show them off to paying customers.

At first thought, this seems crazy, horrible, even inhumane! However, sometimes extreme measures have to be taken in extreme situations. As a mother whose one-pound-six-ounce newborn was saved partly because of this invention, I can only be grateful for the steps taken in order to get doctors and hospitals to take prematurity seriously and use these life-saving devices.

This travel incubator is used to transport babies between hospitals. This is my daughter being transferred to a different hospital for surgery.

This travel incubator is used to transport babies between hospitals. This is my daughter being transferred to a different hospital for surgery.

Once upon a time, and not too long ago, babies were always born at home, and after birth, it was the mother's job to take care of the baby. An infant who was born prematurely would get no special attention from a doctor and was often neglected by the family because it wasn’t thought to survive.

It wasn’t until the 1950s that NICUs, or Neonatal Intensive Care Units, were established in hospitals to take care of sick and premature babies. Even before that, it was only in the 1930s that incubators were set up in hospitals at all.

The first incubators developed in 1860 looked like an old-fashioned stove and was similar to the incubators used for chicken eggs. The main purpose was to keep newborn babies bodies at proper temperatures. In 1889 a Doctor Alexandre Lion created an incubator made of glass that was see through. He also adapted an automatic heating system for it so that it didn’t have to be constantly monitored and the babies could be cared for more easily.

Unfortunately, these incubators were extremely expensive and difficult to create, and hospitals could not justify the use of them. Few people could afford it on their own and the care of babies, especially premature babies was still something that most doctors and hospitals did not deal with. In order to build funding for his invention, which was proven to increase premature infant survival rate to 72%, Dr. Lion started displaying the incubators with live babies as an exhibit. They were put in store-fronts on busy streets throughout France. The babies were displayed as a sideshow and people were charged admission to see them. The incubators were advertised as "The Amazing Mechanized Mom". It may seem a bit appalling; however, for desperate parents who wanted to save their babies, it was free medical care and the best chance for survival.

Above: my daughter, who was born in 2009. In 1904, a baby boy's life was saved at the baby exhibit at Coney Island, NY.  He weighed 1 pound, 6 ounces, and was 11 inches long. That's the same exact size that my daughter was.

Above: my daughter, who was born in 2009. In 1904, a baby boy's life was saved at the baby exhibit at Coney Island, NY. He weighed 1 pound, 6 ounces, and was 11 inches long. That's the same exact size that my daughter was.

German doctor Martin Couney, a student of Stephane Tarnier who had invented the first "oven-like" incubator, found inspiration in Dr. Lion and set up his own incubator exhibit in Berlin. After the success of the exhibit, he set out to London to continue the show. In 1898 Dr. Couney brought the exhibit to America, and by the early 1900s, the exhibits had become extremely popular.

At Coney Island in New York, Dr. Couney ran his exhibit from 1904 until 1943, being the longest-running act ever at Coney Island. Dr. Couney was criticized often for his "Live Baby" exhibits, and it was a controversial subject. This, however, did not stop the doctor/showman from continuing his work and saving thousands of lives of small babies. It also did not stop people from paying to see the babies.

In a way, this baby exhibit was more of an education experience than a freak show for paying spectators. I, for one, had no idea that a baby born so early, weighing so little, even had a chance of surviving until my own daughter was born. It was more than a show; it was a mini hospital for sick and premature infants that just happened to be funded by people who wanted to see and learn more about these babies and the machines that were saving their lives. According to statistics, before the use of the incubator, the survival rate of premature infants was only 15%, and it has now risen to 85%. At Coney Island, Dr. Couney ended up saving roughly 6,700 of the 8,000 babies that were brought there.

My daughter lived in the NICU for nearly six months before she was able to come home. I went there to sit with her every single day and watched as the skilled nurses and doctors took care of her. I can’t imagine what it would have been like to see her on exhibit at a carnival for any paying customer to see, although it may have been an incredible learning opportunity for some people. As horrifying as it sounds to have put the pain and heartache of these little lives on public display for a price, it was necessary to save the lives of these babies otherwise left untreated by doctors and hospitals. It was also necessary to prove that incubators worked so that they could eventually be integrated into hospitals and, in the long run, become a vital part of premature infant care.

Read More About Addison and Our Time in the NICU

  • Guilt and the NICU
    The NICU can be an amazing place. It can also be extremely terrifying. Often times a parent of a baby in the NICU is so overwhelmed with worry for their child, that their own feelings are overlooked. This is my personal journey with the NICU and the


This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and does not substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, and/or dietary advice from a licensed health professional. Drugs, supplements, and natural remedies may have dangerous side effects. If pregnant or nursing, consult with a qualified provider on an individual basis. Seek immediate help if you are experiencing a medical emergency.

© 2011 Cristina Cakes


Elizabeth on December 17, 2015:

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Read More From Patientslounge

I was born at home on Sept.28, 1950 weighing 1.17 oz at 26 weeks. My godmother and her mother delivered me. My father a basket case I am sure. With many prayers going up to Heaven mother and I were rushed to Los Angeles. We had a police escort my mother tells me and I was in an incubator. I finally gained 5 lbs after six months and went h0me.

Sjc on August 01, 2014:

Great article! My late father was a Couney Baby in 1921! He was 1 lb 10 oz at birth.

BB on July 28, 2014:

i too was born very early at 28 weeks and would love some more information for a school project please email me with some more information @

jahanzaib on February 07, 2014:

Very interesting history

Cristina Cakes (author) from Virginia on January 23, 2013:

Thanks so much! I really appreciate all the feedback and personal stories.

onlygrace on January 22, 2013:

Thanks to God, for the development of technology in dealing with premature baby born. Now even a premature baby can grow healthy and lives a wonderful life. You are one of the evidence =)

A on November 04, 2012:

I love this article. I was 10 weeks early born at 3.14 pounds witch is pi!

georgia on April 28, 2012:

I too was born early sept 11 1951 27 weeks i was 2 1/2 pounds I would love to compare notes so to speak with you. my e-mail is

Georgia on March 06, 2012:

Was one of the first babies in the Brookley Air Force Base Hospital to be placed in an incubator. I was due in December, was born in February weighing only 1 pound 2 ounces in 1951. They continuously told my family not to get their hopes up, that I would not survive--infancy, then toddler, then pre-school, then elementary, etc. I am now 61 and although not in the best of health, am better than many.

sdy53 on February 18, 2011:

First very happy that your precious daughter is alive and well, and you really learned a lot about the incubators as evidenced by your informative article.

Ingenira on February 17, 2011:

Very interesting history on incubators. Glad to know that your daughter survived.

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