It can be heartbreaking for parents of a baby born prematurely or with health problems to go without visiting their fragile newborn. It's also become common, as COVID-19 restrictions limit how many visitors at-risk newborns are allowed, said Laura Gary, nurse manager of the neonatal intensive care unit at Hennepin Healthcare.

Now the hospital has a way for parents and extended family to bridge that gap and feel more connected with their new arrivals.

AngelEye Health, which Hennepin Healthcare began using just before Christmas, allows parents and an unlimited number of family and friends around the world to securely look in on the little ones 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

"New parents tell me it's life-changing," Gary said. "Nobody wants to leave their baby behind. It helps connect families wherever they are located."

Hennepin Healthcare began looking at AngelEye last spring, prompted by a corona­virus pandemic that forced hospitals to lock down and restrict visitors. For new parents of babies born prematurely or who have other health challenges, those restrictions can be especially disheartening, Gary said.

"We closed down our doors tight to visitors and extra people. Only one parent was allowed to visit the baby at a time," she said. "Often, that meant Dad had to sit out in the car, idling, while Mom saw the baby."

No grandparents. No big sisters. No new aunts and uncles. And, if the new mother tested positive for COVID-19, Gary said, both parents could be kept from seeing their newborn for a full 14 days.

"We asked ourselves, 'How can we do better?' " Gary said.

Enter AngelEye. Using a bedside camera capturing every moment of the newborn's day in real time, the technology allows parents to look in on their baby, using their phone, computer or tablet. The app also includes a tool that allows doctors and nurses to send parents updates, including photos and videos. Parents control which family members have access to the system.

"We can snap a photo of the baby in her Christmas jammies and share with Mom, or whomever the parents want, all over the world," Gary said. "Doctors and nurses can share notes on the baby's care for that day."

More than simply giving families of fragile newborns a chance to ooh and ah over photos and videos, the technology provides important benefits to loved ones who would otherwise feel disconnected during a baby's sometimes monthslong hospital stay, she said.

Breastfeeding mothers say watching their baby over the video feed has helped their milk production. Big brothers and sisters have used it to check in — and lessen their anxiety connected to the baby, Gary said. Concerned family members overseas can drop in virtually for peace of mind.

"While it's not the same as holding them in your arms, at this time, it may be the next best thing," she said.

According to AngelEye Health, of Little Rock, Ark., and Nashville, more than 90 health care facilities around the country use its services. Hennepin Healthcare is the first hospital in the Twin Cities to offer the service, officials said.

Donations totaling $40,000 will pay for the program's first year, a Hennepin Healthcare spokeswoman said.