Hospitals are rethinking the way they care for premature babies.
The traditional neonatal intensive-care unit puts preterm babies—those born before 37 weeks—into incubators in a room with six to eight other infants. But hospitals are starting to realize that premature infants benefit from close physical contact with their parents.
One of the latest NICUs, in Beacon Children’s Hospital of South Bend, Ind., was designed around this idea. There, families can stay together for weeks or months in private rooms that facilitate skin-to-skin contact—also known as kangaroo care—between parent and baby.
Kangaroo care, which is common in Sweden and Canada, has been shown to reduce mortality, infection rates and lengths of hospital stays in preterm babies, while improving infant growth and breast-feeding rates.
Instead of nurses and other hospital personnel taking charge of the babies, the hospital staff becomes coaches who teach parents how to care for their infants themselves. All care is provided in private rooms with families present. Even medical procedures are done in the same private rooms.
Beacon’s unit, which opened in May, is the first in the U.S. planned so that mothers who have just delivered are able to stay with their babies, no matter how critical the baby’s condition, in a room designed specifically for that purpose, says Robert D, White, a neonatologist who is the creator, along with Sue Ann Barton, principal architect at ZGF architects, of Beacon’s new facility. The exception, he notes, is for mothers who are so ill after delivery that they need to go to an adult ICU.
“Skin-to-skin care is a biological imperative for the sensory development of preterm babies,” Dr. White says. “It reduces stress levels and helps preterm infants adapt to life outside the womb, improves breast-feeding and leads to healthy weight gain.”
Beacon’s facility has so-called NIC2 rooms for mothers who are still patients after delivery and their babies. When the mother is discharged, she and her baby would move to a room set up for mother as parent rather than patient, but otherwise similar to the NIC2 rooms.