Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Popping A Baby Out Like A Cork, And Other Birth Innovations

The Odon Device was inspired by a YouTube video about how to remove a cork from the inside of a wine bottle.
The Odon Device
The Odon Device was inspired by a YouTube video about how to remove a cork from the inside of a wine bottle.

An invention to help with obstructed labor has turned some heads — and not just because the idea came from a party trick on YouTube.

The Odon Device, created by Argentine car mechanic Jorge Odon, guides a folded plastic sleeve around the baby's head. A little bit of air is then pumped between the two plastic layers, cushioning the baby's head and allowing it to be sucked out. This trick for removing a cork from an empty wine bottle works the same way.

The device has been embraced by the World Health Organization and is being developed by the global medical technology company BD. Once clinical trials are done, the WHO and individual countries will have to approve it before it's sold. BD hasn't said how much it will charge, but each one is expected to cost less than $50 to make.

"If proven safe and effective," a 2011 presentation on Odon's invention said, "the Odon Device will be the first innovation in operative vaginal delivery since the development of forceps centuries ago and vacuum extractor decades ago."

The Odon device shows that "good ideas can come from anyone and anywhere," says Wendy Taylor, director of USAID's Center for Accelerating Innovation and Impact.

If you're in the business of innovating, she says, there's no need to strive for mechanical complexity. Some of the biggest breakthroughs are cheap and simple. And, she says, the strategy for scaling something up for worldwide use "is just as important as the innovation itself."

One of the crowning innovations in preventing death during childbirth was convincing doctors to wash their hands in between handling corpses and delivering babies. And many argue that fancier tools are just part of a tradition of unnecessary interference that circumvented the best tool in the box: gravity.

With that in mind, here are five ideas that struck us as innovative and surprising (some more likely to succeed than others):

1. Ready Yet?

A team at the University of California, San Francisco created a " cervical cap" to check whether a woman is about to go into labor. The device can detect changes in the collagen of the cervix. The softening of collagen as the cervix opens is a telltale sign a baby's on its way. Information from the cap's sensors can be transmitted to a nearby cellphone, which can send the data to a doctor. The device can be inserted briefly once a day, without a professional's help.

2. Back To Basics

A team at Massachusetts General Hospital developed a uterine balloon kit to stop postpartum hemorrhage. It consists of a condom tied to a catheter. Water from the catheter fills the condom in the uterus, creating pressure that can stop the bleeding. The kit has been tested successfully in South Sudan and Kenya. A similar tool in the U.S. can cost more than $300 each, Mass General says, compared with less than $5 each for the simple balloon kit.

3. Like Stretching Before A Race

Athletes stretch their muscles before a race; why not do the same before birth? That's the thinking behind a device by Materna Medical currently being evaluated in clinical trials in Australia. Over the course of one to three hours during early labor, it mechanically dilates the vaginal canal from the usual diameter of 2.6 centimeters to the fully expanded size required to pass a baby, about 8 to 10 centimeters. Though the product description includes bracing terms like "force-controlled" and "semi-automatic," it's supposed to make birth gentler on Mom.

4. From Gourds To Balloons

This silicone balloon can inflate to the size of a football. In practice, it doesn't get wider than a standard grapefruit. In the weeks leading up to delivery, the German-made pelvic floor muscle exerciser is intended to stretch vaginal muscles so that they don't tear during birth. The invention was supposedly inspired by the traditional use of gourds in some African countries for the same purpose.

5. Centrifugal Birth

Patented in 1965 by George and Charlotte Blonsky, the Blonsky Device is an "apparatus for facilitating the birth of a child by centrifugal force." It looks medieval and works like a centrifuge. The soon-to-be-mother is strapped to a table, which rotates at high speed until the baby shoots out into a carefully placed net — about as close as birth gets to a slam dunk. The inventors posthumously won an Ig Nobel Prize for their, um, ingenuity, and were honored with a mini-opera about the patent.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit

Dana Farrington is a digital editor coordinating online coverage on the Washington Desk — from daily stories to visual feature projects to the weekly newsletter. She has been with the NPR Politics team since President Trump's inauguration. Before that, she was among NPR's first engagement editors, managing the homepage for and the main social accounts. Dana has also worked as a weekend web producer and editor, and has written on a wide range of topics for NPR, including tech and women's health.
Rae Ellen Bichell is a reporter for NPR's Science Desk. She first came to NPR in 2013 as a Kroc fellow and has since reported Web and radio stories on biomedical research, global health, and basic science. She won a 2016 Michael E. DeBakey Journalism Award from the Foundation for Biomedical Research. After graduating from Yale University, she spent two years in Helsinki, Finland, as a freelance reporter and Fulbright grantee.