Every year, one out of every nine babies in the U.S. is born premature and can spend weeks in the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU). Now new technology is helping preemies grow faster – and sending them home sooner.

The Pea Pod is a medical device designed to measure the body composition of premature infants. The baby is placed in a heated chamber that looks like a small MRI machine for approximately three minutes. Using a special air displacement method, the machine senses change in pressure and can determine the percentage of body weight that is fat and the percentage that is lean body mass. With this information health care workers can then personalize the baby’s nutritional supplements to help with appropriate weight gain.

The staff at the Cedars-Sinai Neonatal Intensive Care Unit, part of the Maxine Dunitz Children’s Health Center in Los Angeles, Calif. started using the Pea Pod technology earlier this year. There are only several in use around the country and throughout the world.

Ellen Mack has been a neonatal clinical nurse specialist at Cedars-Sinai for over 17 years, and told FoxNews.com she expects use of the new technology to improve the already good results they produce from current feeding protocols and add additional reassurance for parents.

“We expect the Pea Pod to make a difference for those patients whose needs are not met by our current practices and who need feeding tailored to that specific patient.  The Pea Pod may help us identify these patients sooner and thus meet their needs sooner and with greater specificity,” Mack said.

Patients are eligible if they were born weighing less than 3 pounds, 5 ounces, if they were small for their gestational age at birth, or if they must rely on IVs to provide the majority of their nutritional needs for longer than two weeks. The Pea Pod is used on eligible patients once a week.

The technology helps determine how closely the body fat percentage of a specific patient compares to what is normally seen in a healthy term newborn.  If the percentage is close, within two standard deviations, then NICU staff stay on track with the kind of supplements they are using and continue to monitor the patient’s overall weight gain.  

“If weight gain is lagging but body content is within those norms, this might guide us to favor the use of one macronutrient like fat, protein or carbohydrate over another as we add calories to their diet,” Mack said. “If fat content is more than two standard deviations away from the healthy, term norm, that might lead us in a different direction regarding which macronutrients we emphasize in supplementing feedings.”

Long-term complications of premature birth include impaired cognitive skills, vision, hearing and dental problems, behavioral and psychological problems and chronic health issues.

According to COSMED, the medical technology company behind the FDA-approved device, Pea Pod is safe, non-invasive, and designed for frequent testing. Its accuracy has been shown to be very high against reference techniques in a number of studies.

Dr. Charles Simmons, chair of the department of pediatrics at Cedars-Sinai said the information from the technology should ultimately lead to healthier weight gain, better neurological outcomes and shorter hospital stays for babies in the neonatal intensive care unit.

“The Pea Pod is important in helping the NICU team facilitate a healthy weight gain in the smallest infants by calculating the amount of lean mass and body fat in the infant on a regular basis,” Simmons said. “It’s helping us reduce the babies’ stay in the NICU and sending them home to their families, where they belong.”