When Natalie Coultice-Matthews' son, Oliver, was born seven years ago, it didn't take long for the doctors to realize something was wrong. He had two broken arms, a broken femur and seven broken ribs. Diagnosed with brittle bone disease, he was quickly transported from a hospital in Peterborough to SickKids Hospital's neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) two hours away. There, in a ward with five other babies, he spent the first two and a half months of his life surrounded by doctors and nurses who managed his pain and helped him heal. Natalie and her husband Bryce's lives were turned upside down. Though they rented a place in Toronto to spend as much time with Oliver as possible, leaving each night to go back to the empty condo felt impossibly difficult. "It was like leaving a part of yourself there," says Coultice-Matthews. "You’re leaving someone who is so frail, so fragile, so new to the world."
Any parent of a baby who has spent time in a NICU will tell you that one of the most difficult parts of the experience was going home at the end of the long, emotionally draining days and leaving their baby behind in the ward. But hospitals are changing their approach to NICUs, and soon, this distressing estrangement of moms and babies will be a thing of the past.
This fall, BC Women’s Hospital NICU at the Teck Acute Care Centre opened their new 70 single-family-room unit where parents can have private time with their baby and even spend the night. Late preterm babies, who are not as high-risk, will even go straight from the delivery room to the NICU suite with their moms for postpartum care in the same room. And now, SickKids Hospital in Toronto is campaigning to build a new hospital that will forgo the traditional open-bay NICU for single-family rooms that have a bed next to the incubator, in an effort to help parents and babies spend more time together.
For parents, it means the heartbreak of separation is over, but for babies, it has profound impacts on their health. Here are some of the ways they benefit.
Breastfeeding improves. Estelle Gauda, head of neonatology at SickKids, says research shows that when moms are able to spend more one-on-one time with their babies in single-family rooms, their bodies respond by producing more breastmilk. Research has also found that babies gain weight better when in individual NICU rooms.
Infections decrease. Not only does having walls between patients reduce the chance of bacteria being transmitted, but Gauda says it reminds healthcare practitioners to wash their hands each time they see a new patient.
They get more skin-to-skin. The privacy and comfort of individual rooms offers parents the opportunity to provide kangaroo care for their babies. “Skin-to-skin contact, particularly in premature babies, is associated with improved weight gain, improved temperature regulation, reduced infections, reduced stress in the mom and the baby, and improved neurodevelopment outcomes,” says Julie de Salaberry, director of maternal newborn programs at BC Women’s Hospital.
Babies have fewer neurodevelopmental issues. Open-bay NICUs are noisy places, with conversations happening among nurses and families, and monitors sounding alarms. All of this commotion can be confusing to an infant’s developing brain. Private rooms offer quiet and let babies hear their parents’ own voices. “When a baby hears the words and the voices of their parents more, their language improves,” says Gauda.
They sleep better. All of that noise and the harsh lighting in an open-bay ward is stressful for babies and affects their sleep and wake patterns. “With single-room care, we can control and individualize the environment to adjust for each baby,” says de Salaberry.
Procedures are more comfortable. In a crowded ward, parents are less likely to stay with their child when they’re having a blood draw or a spinal tap, but when they’re given the space to stay by their baby, Gauda says they can reach in the incubator and offer comfort during small procedures.
Babies are released more quickly. A 2009 study published in Pediatrics found that when parents were involved in the care of their NICU babies, their babies were released from the hospital about five days sooner. According to de Salaberry, research is showing that parents also feel more confident caring for their babies and taking them home sooner if they’ve spent more time with them one-on-one doing hands-on care.
Gauda says the difference of having individual NICUs is palpable. “People felt better. They’re kinder and they’re less stressed,” she says. “Babies get better when mothers are less stressed.”
For Coultice-Matthews, it would have made a world of difference. “Having a room where you can have that time to rest and not feel that pain of leaving your baby—I just can’t even describe how that would feel.”