Family Health: Today’s NICU is a family affair

Having a baby that is premature or has serious health problems can seem like slipping into an alternate reality. Instead of the simple, peaceful birth you had planned, you and your family find yourselves in a busy neonatal intensive care unit full of bewildering equipment. Your baby may be attached to monitors and surrounded by blinking machines. You know it’s all necessary, but where do you fit in?

In today’s neonatal intensive care unit, or NICU, the answer is simple – as close to your baby as possible. Even if you have to let experts step in, you are never just an observer.

This type of close involvement is based on solid science – studies show that the more time babies spend with their mothers, the better they do. At Community’s NICU, that means that after a brief evaluation, most newborns are placed directly onto their mother’s breasts to snuggle and get warm in their new environment. Keeping newborns warm is a priority, especially if they have health problems, and heat is transferred more efficiently from skin-to-skin contact than in a hospital isolette, or incubator.

Skin-to-skin contact is sometimes called Kangaroo Care, and it gives premature babies critical advantages. Besides keeping them warm, it helps transfer beneficial bacteria from mother to baby – a process that helps infants digest breast milk and fight off infections. Kangaroo Care also stimulates the mother’s production of breast milk, which is especially important for premature infants whose intestines may not be mature. Babies can digest breast milk more easily than formula.

All this works best if it happens directly after the baby is born. Interruptions and delays, such as transporting mother and infant from another hospital, can make Kangaroo Care less efficient and reduce its benefits. Medical care for premature babies, and those with other health problems, should also be started as soon as possible.

Since timing is so critical, mothers-to-be with elevated risks should consider delivering in a hospital that has a NICU. You’re more likely to deliver early or have a baby with health problems, if you:

  • Have diabetes
  • Are very overweight or obese
  • Have high blood pressure
  • Are pregnant with twins or more
  • Have had a previous premature delivery

It’s also important to choose a NICU where the staff sees enough patients to stay highly skilled at treating the sickest infants. The NICU at Community Medical Center is the largest in Montana, caring for more than 250 babies a year. And as a Level III facility, it can treat the tiniest newborns – those that weigh less than 1500 grams or are born at less than 32 weeks gestation.

Even these tiny babies benefit from close physical contact. At Community, they get not only state-of-the-art medical treatment, but also the oldest care in the world – being held in their mother’s arms.