I had an amazing opportunity to visit NICU in the Turku University Hospital in 2016. They admit around 550 problematic newborns per year. About 10% of them are born below 30 weeks of gestation. The whole unit is practically based on 11 family rooms (single family rooms when possible) and additionally one larger room for 4 patients. The larger room is usually used for babies who are admitted due to transient issues (tachypnea, hypoglycemia, hyperbilirubinemia etc). Single family rooms are equipped with an incubator/open warmer bed/cot, one adult bed, one reclining armchair and a nappy changing station. There is also a breast pump and a refrigerator for breast milk in the room. Parents are constantly involved in the care of their preterm baby and are welcome to stay and care for their child all day and night. That’s the theory. So what is the reality?
Entering the unit for the first time, the word that came to my mind was „serenity”.
The unit welcomes you with knitted octopuses and tiny socks everywhere. The whole design of the unit is somehow soft, warm and calming. Each family room is „protected” by a closed door with a window in them - and the window is also covered with a pastel-color quilt. If you want to enter the room, or you’re just looking for your co-worker, you can just „peek in” and check without disturbing the family much. Then you can knock on the door and enter the room. This way you are giving the family the maximum privacy we can offer in those special circumstances.
Well, you have those tiny, „problematic” children in those private family rooms, with their parents being their primary caretakers, guardians and gate-keepers. Yet, nobody feels that their access to the patient is limited. How is that even possible? Maybe this is what we call „the change of the caring culture”? When you’re „letting go” of some of your duties and delegating them to the parents, you also learn to trust them with your little patient. After all, we all have the same goal- and the parents are personally and emotionally interested in their own child’s well-being, so they have even stronger motivation to perform well.
Visiting you patient in the single family room feels like visiting your friends, who had just brought their newborn back from the hospital. Imagine the situation, that you’re paying them that first visit, with a little gift wrapped in a pink paper and a big pink balloon. What will you expect? I think it’s quite normal that their room will be a bit messy and everybody will be whispering around the sleeping baby. It’s normal that the mother will be breastfeeding (or pumping milk) in your presence. And again- it’s normal that parents will be touching and cuddling the baby.
I’ve visited several neonatal intensive care units around the Europe. They all announce proudly, that they are „family centered units”. They all know that skin-to-skin care is a recommended, good and beneficial procedure. Yet in the same time, they actually treat it like a medical procedure - which is time-limited and full of exclusion criteria. That procedure also seems to be quite stressful for the medical staff, because they feel like they can’t access their patient anymore. What if something happens, what if we need to react, how to save that baby when the baby is outside the cot? How can we be medical professionals, when the patient is out of reach?
It comes straight to the question: what exactly is skin-to-skin care for you? Is it a medical procedure, which is performed once or twice a week, for one hour, when the baby (and the parent!) is fully dressed? Or do you consider mother’s and father’s bare chest as a new space of care for your patient? A safe surrounding, stabilizing baby’s body temperature, breathing and heart rate? And what do you consider a contraindication for skin-to-skin care?
Recently I’ve heard from my friend that in their NICU (highest reference centre) kangaroo care is performed only after the baby reaches 1600g. In other place, I’ve seen a healthy 31-weeker in his second week of life, on full enteral feeds, happily kicking in a closed incubator, who couldn’t be kangarooed or even touched by his parents, just because there was a PICC-line placed in his arm. I still remember those sad parents, wearing plastic gowns, standing by that closed incubator, not being able to even touch their own baby, just because it was a preemie.
Prematurity is a diagnosis, but it’s not a sentence! If we are treating similar babies with similar equipment and similarly trained staff - why does our practice differ so much? Leave your comment and join the discussion!