When someone asks me what the hardest thing was about having two babies in the NICU after they were both born premature, the answer comes very easily: “Having to leave them every night and go home with empty arms to an empty house.” Even now, 12 years later, I can remember how powerless and sad I felt walking away from my sick newborns.
I knew my babies were in good hands. I also knew I had no alternative, but it was a painful separation every time I left. I slept terribly at home, wondering how they were doing, and had to content myself with occasional phone calls to patient nurses who would reassure me that all was well. By the time I was able to take my babies home, I was an exhausted wreck.
Because I’ve had the privilege of working with NICU families as a family support specialist for the past seven years, I know I’m not alone in these feelings and experiences. Hundreds of parents have shared similar stories with me. This forced separation gives rise to feelings of guilt, anxiety and depression. It can also make it harder for babies to bond with parents and develop that beautiful attachment that will sustain their well-being as they grow.
So I cannot overstate how happy I am to see the details of a first in Canada—a new unit opening at BC Women’s Hospital that allows moms to sleep in the same room as their newborn babies while bonding and being cared for in the same space. News of this new unit, The Teck Acute Care Centre has spread around our NICU parent community like wildfire. We speak of it in hushed tones, almost like it’s something mythical. “You mean…you won’t have to leave?” one mom asked me. “And you’ll be able to see your baby right after birth? You won’t be apart?” I nodded, and she grabbed my hands excitedly. “That is the best thing I’ve ever heard, and I’m so jealous!”
I’m a little jealous too, but mostly I’m thrilled. I’m so proud of the fantastic team from BC Women’s Hospital who made this happen, and I’m delighted for all the families who will be able to experience and benefit from this new model of care.
More than anything, I’m excited for the babies. While survival rates have improved drastically over the years, NICU graduates still struggle with higher-than-average rates of anxiety, ADHD, learning disabilities and autism spectrum disorder, and there is some speculation that these issues are connected to the early sensory disruption they experience in the hospital. Parental presence is enormously protective for a baby’s developing brain. So by helping moms and dads stay close to their babies, BC Women’s Hospital is giving these children the brightest future possible.
And so, to the team at BC Women’s Hospital, and to the families who will be having their babies there, I’d like to say congratulations. To other NICUs, I’d like to say: Let’s be inspired by this example, and find ways of reuniting babies and parents whenever possible. I can imagine, in a few years, we will be looking back on how we used to build NICUs, wondering how we ever could have been so cruel as to keep sick babies and their parents so far apart.
Kate Robson is the mom of two children born preterm, a family support specialist at Sunnybrook NICU, and the Executive Director of the Canadian Premature Babies Foundation (www.cpbf-fbpc.org)
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