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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!
Skin to skin care or kangaroo care is all the rage and I am the first one to offer my support for it. Questions persist though as to whether from a physiological standpoint, babies are more stable in an isolette in a quiet environment or out in the open on their mother or father’s chests. Bornhorst et al expressed caution in their study Skin-to-skin (kangaroo) care, respiratory control, and thermoregulation. In a surprising finding, babies with an average gestational age of 29 weeks were monitored for a number of physiological parameters and found to have more frequent apnea and higher heart rates than when in an isolette. The study was small though and while there were statistical differences in these parameters they may not have had much clinical significance (1.5 to 2.8 per hour for apnea, bradycardia or desaturation events). Furthermore, does an increase in such events translate into any changes in cerebral oxygenation that might in turn have implications for later development? Tough to say based on a study of this magnitude but it certainly does raise some eyebrows. What if we could look at cerebral oxygenation? As you might have guessed, that is exactly what has been done by Lorenz L et al in their recent paper Cerebral oxygenation during skin-to-skin care in preterm infants not receiving respiratory support.The goal of this study was to look at 40 preterm infants without any respiratory distress and determine whether cerebral oxygenation (rStO2)was better in their isolette or in skin to skin care (SSC). They allowed each infant to serve as their own control by have three 90 minute periods each including the first thirty minutes as a washout period. Each infant started their monitoring in the isolette then went to SSC then back to the isolette. The primary outcome the power calculation was based on was the difference in rStO2 between SSC and in the isolette. Secondary measures looked at such outcomes as HR, O2 sat, active and quiet sleep percentages, bradycardic events as lastly periods of cerebral hypoxia or hyperoxia. Normal cerebral oxygenation was defined as being between 55 to 85%. Surprising results? Perhaps its the start of a trend but again the results were a bit surprising showing a better rStO2 when in the isolette (−1.3 (−2.2 to −0.4)%, p<0.01). Other results are summarized in the table below: Mean difference in outcomes Variable SSC Isolette Difference in mean p rStO2 73.6 74.8 -1.3 <0.01 SpO2 (median) 97 97 -1.1 0.02 HR 161 156 5 <0.01 % time in quiet sleep 58.6 34.6 24 <0.01 No differences were seen in bradycardic events, apnea, cerebral hypoexmia or hyperoxemia. The authors found that SSC periods in fact failed the “non-inferiority” testing indicating that from a rStO2 standpoint, babies were more stable when not doing SSC! Taking a closer look though one could argue that even if this is true does it really matter? What is the impact on a growing preterm infant if their cerebral oxygenation is 1.3 percentage points on average lower during SSC or if their HR is 5 beats per minute faster? I can’t help but think that this is an example of statistical significance without clinical significance. Nonetheless, if there isn’t a superiority of these parameters it does leave one asking “should we keep at it?” Benefits of skin to skin care Important outcomes such as reductions in mortality and improved breastfeeding rates cannot be ignored or the positive effects on family bonding that ensue. Some will argue though that the impacts on mortality certainly may be relevant in developing countries where resources are scarce but would we see the same benefits in developed nations. The authors did find a difference though in this study that I think benefits developing preterm infants across the board no matter which country you are in. That benefit is that of Quiet Sleep (QS). As preterm infants develop they tend to spend more time in QS compared to active sleep (AS). From Doussard- Roossevelt J, “Quiet sleep consists of periods of quiescence with regular respiration and heart rate, and synchronous EEG patterns. Active sleep consists of periods of movement with irregular respiration and heart rate, and desynchronous EEG patterns.” In the above table one sees that the percentage of time in QS was significantly increased compared to AS when in SSC. This is important as neurodevelopment is thought to advance during periods of QS as preterm infants age. There may be little difference favouring less oxygen extraction during isolette times but maybe that isn’t such a good thing? Could it be that the small statistical difference in oxygen extraction is because the brain is more active in laying down tracks and making connections? Totally speculative on my part but all that extra quiet sleep has got to be good for something. To answer the question of this post in the title I think the answer is a resounding yes for the more stable infant. What we don’t know at the moment except from anecdotal reports of babies doing better in SSC when really sick is whether on average critically ill babies will be better off in SSC. I suspect the answer is that some will and some won’t. While we like to keep things simple and have a one size fits all answer for most of our questions in the NICU, this one may not be so simple. For now I think we keep promoting SSC for even our sick patients but need to be honest with ourselves and when a patient just isn’t ready for the handling admit it and try again when more stable. For the more stable patient though I think giving more time for neurons to find other neurons and make new connections is a good thing to pursue!
As the practice seems to be winning the world over you can imagine that a headline entitled, 'Skin-to-skin' fad blamed for deaths of babies would get some attention. This article was sent to me by a colleague after being published last month on Yahoo news service. The claim is based on the experience of a hospital in Perth that has seen some cases of neonatal suffocation after mothers who were performing skin to skin care fell asleep and rolled onto their newborn. This "fad" they say is attributable as the cause of death. Before looking into whether there is any basis for such a claim it may be worth exploring whether Kangaroo Care (KC) otherwise known as Skin to Skin (STS) care is effective. Is KC Effective in the NICU? KC or is an ideal method of involving parents in the care of their premature infant. It fosters bonding between parents and their hospitalized infant, encourages the family to be with their child and thereby exposes them to other elements of neonatal care that they can take part in. Before you reach the conclusion that KC only serves to enhance the parental experience it does so much more than that. The practice began in Bogota Columbia in 1979 in order to deal with a shortage of incubators and associated rampant hospital infections. The results of their intervention were dramatic and lead to the spread of this strategy worldwide. The person credited with helping to spread the word and establish KC as a standard of care in many NICUs is Nils Bergman and his story and commentary can be found here. The effects of KC are dramatic and effective to reduce many important morbidities and conclusively has led to a reduction in death arguably the most important outcome. An analysis of effect has been the subject of several Cochrane Collaboration reviews with the most recent one being found here. To summarize though, the use of KC or STS care has resulted in the following overall benefits to premature infants at discharge or 40 - 41 weeks' postmenstrual age: Reduction in mortality (typical RR 0.68, 95% CI 0.48 to 0.96) nosocomial infection/sepsis (typical RR 0.57, 95% CI 0.40 to 0.80) hypothermia (typical RR 0.23, 95% CI 0.10 to 0.55) Increase in KMC was found to increase some measures of infant growth, breastfeeding, and mother-infant attachment To put this in perspective, medicine is littered with great medications that never achieved such impact as simply putting your child against your chest. This is another shining example of doing more with less. This is not to say that modern medicine and technology does not have its place in the NICU but KC is simply too powerful a strategy not to use and promote routinely in the NICU. What About Term Infants? Much has been written on the subject. A Pilot study in 2007 by Walters et al found benefits in newborn temperature, glycemic control and initiation of breastfeeding. Perhaps the strongest evidence for benefit comes from a cochrane review of the subject last updated in 2012. Early skin-to-skin contact for mothers and their healthy newborn infants. This analysis included 34 RCTs with 2177 participants (mother-infant dyads). Breastfeeding at one to four months postbirth (13 trials; 702 participants) (risk ratio (RR) 1.27, 95% confidence interval (CI) 1.06 to 1.53, and SSC increased breastfeeding duration (seven trials; 324 participants) (mean difference (MD) 42.55 days, 95% CI -1.69 to 86.79) but the results did not quite reach statistical significance (P = 0.06). Late preterm infants had better cardio-respiratory stability with early SSC (one trial; 31 participants) (MD 2.88, 95% CI 0.53 to 5.23). Blood glucose 75 to 90 minutes following the birth was significantly higher in SSC infants (two trials, 94 infants) (MD 10.56 mg/dL, 95% CI 8.40 to 12.72). Taken together there are benefits although the impact on breastfeeding rates in term infants show a strong trend while not reaching statistical significance. Importantly though in this large sample we don't see any increase in mortality nor to my knowledge has there ever been a study to show an increase. How do we deal with this claim from Australia then? I think the problem with this claim is that KC is being blamed after a "root cause analysis" has come to the wrong conclusion. The problem is not KC but rather a lack of a "falls prevention" strategy on the postpartum units. Mothers after delivery are exhausted and may be on pain medication so as the saying goes "there is a time and a place". As our hospital prepares for accreditation again, safety to prevent falls (including babies falling out of mom's arms or in a similar vein mothers falling onto babies) is something that every hospital needs. Whether a mother is practicing KC, breastfeeding or simply holding her baby if a mother falls asleep while doing so there is a risk to the infant. If the hospital in this case has seen an increase in such cases of newborn deaths while performing KC then it is likely the hospitals lack of attention to minimizing risk in the postpartum period that is to blame and not KC itself. Certainly the evidence from rigorously done trials would not support this claim. This hospital would do well to have a comprehensive plan to educate parents about the risks of fatigue, ensure bassinets are next to every bed to provide mothers with an easy transfer if they are tired. Certainly during the immediate period after delivery mothers, partners of mothers who have just delivered should be encouraged to be with them or advise the mothers if they are tired to put the baby down and rest. A little education could go a long way! I think it is a cheap out to blame KC for such problems as it turns our attention away from the real issue and that is a lack of policy and education. So in the end I would like to state emphatically that... No I don't believe the "skin-to-skin fad" is to blame for an increase in deaths!