Despite the number of babies and families who spend their time in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU), NICU awareness remains fairly low.
The NICU is a special place, filled with tiny toes, flashing lights, beeping alarms and quiet whispers.
It’s a place for hope and healing, but it can also be overwhelming.
The NICU has advanced technology and specially trained healthcare professionals, like neonatologists, who care for the tiniest of patients in their first few days of life - a critical period where the smallest of moments can have long-term impacts.
We now know how important the first 1,000 days of life is - a unique window of opportunity when the foundations for neurodevelopment, health and growth are formed. An infant’s experiences in their first year shape their health and their ability to thrive later in life.
Every child deserves equal opportunity to reach their full potential and it’s through proactive and preventative investments - like raising NICU awareness - that we can provide children with the physical and emotional resources they need to create a bright future.
Read on to learn more about challenges faced in the NICU and how increased awareness, patient education and compassionate technology can help support the healthy development of young children.
Shaping lifelong favorable outcomes with early preventive intervention
Our earliest experiences in life, even those just moments after being born, lay the foundation for our future health, behavior and learning.
“The science of early brain development can inform investments in early childhood… illustrating why child development - particularly from birth to five years - is a foundation for a prosperous and sustainable society.” - Centre on the Developing Child, Harvard University
The science of early childhood development has begun to make its way into mainstream popular consciousness, providing a critical opportunity to bring greater awareness to the unique needs of families and infants in the NICU.
Many infants in the NICU begin life facing an uphill battle. From separation from their mother, to breathing and heart conditions, and living in a world of increased risk of infection, many NICU babies battle against the odds.
While children are indeed resilient, the care and support a child in the NICU receives - every touch, sound, poke, line, and bedside visit - is fundamental to shaping their long-term outcomes.
The awareness, effort and investment in quality improvement initiatives, technology and patient centred care in the NICU is more effective and efficient than remediation later in life.
NICU care and statistics
Each year, more than 300,000 families in the United States have infants who require advanced medical attention in a NICU for a number of possible reasons.
Conditions that require care in a NICU include:
- Premature or early term birth (before 37 weeks gestation)
- Low birth weight (less than 5.5lbs)
- Respiratory Distress Syndrome or respiratory failure
- Heart problems
- Congenital anomalies
- Birth defects
- Low blood sugar
According to Stanford Medicine Children’s Health, about 50,000 babies are born preterm in the US per year, and many of those babies also have low birth weight (less than 5.5lbs).
The youngest babies to survive preterm delivery are often around 22 weeks gestation at the time of their birth and have a 28% survival rate with active medical treatment. Chances of survival increase the further along the pregnancy is prior to delivery, and the more developed the infant is.
However, thanks to advances in medical technology and compassionate, patient-centred care, the survival rates of even the tiniest of babies is increasing.
Yet, being in the NICU, can be a risk to vulnerable infants and their families.
Stress, pain and infection in the NICU
While the NICU is a critical space that offers the expert care, medicine and technology some infants require - it’s also a place where stress, pain and infection can lead to negative outcomes.
Stressors, including separation from the mother, light and noise, exposure to contaminants that can lead to infection, invasive procedures and an overwhelmed caregiver, can have detrimental effects on the growth and neurological development of NICU infants.
Despite major advances in medical technology over the years, not all NICU babies survive, and many are discharged with significant follow-up and ongoing specialized care.
Although most babies do survive being born premature, some infants experience medical complications that will impact them throughout their lives.
Studies have shown that one of the leading causes of death in NICU patients is Healthcare Acquired Infections (HAIs) picked up while infants are receiving life-saving care.
Approximately 65.4% of HAIs contracted are infections of the bloodstream, which can lead to longer hospital stays, serious setbacks to healing, and sepsis.
Catheter-related bloodstream infections (CRBSIs) or central-line associated infections (CLABSIs) are bloodstream infections that are healthcare associated.
Healthcare associated infections are preventable - meaning that with the right care protocols and technology, we can protect NICU babies from these threats.
Another preventable complication in the NICU are medical adhesive-related skin injuries (MARSIs).
Infants in the NICU are at risk of MARSI as their developing skin is incredibly delicate and vulnerable, and many hospitals do not use atraumatic medical adhesives designed to be gentle on the skin, while tough against infection.
Torn fragile skin, risk of infection, painful procedures, flashing alarms, weighing every feed, separation between family and infant and concerning diagnoses can present a stressful and painful experience for everyone involved.
But, there are opportunities for quality improvement, advanced protection and better outcomes.
<H2> Equipping NICUs with advanced and compassionate medical technology
In addition to quality improvement initiatives and family-centered care supports in the NICU, new advanced, compassionate medical technologies specifically designed for pediatric populations can prevent negative outcomes and work to give infants every possible chance to thrive.
Healthcare professionals and caregivers can advocate for:
- Line-guards that protect line connections from external contaminants
- Medical adhesives designed for sensitive skin and gentle removal
- Dual-antimicrobial dressings that protect surgical sites and IV-sites from harmful microorganisms
The intersection between technology, the caregiver-patient relationship and compassion is increasingly being recognized as a critical component to driving patient outcomes.
Here at Covalon, we’ve put the needs of pediatric patients at the centre of our design: safety, comfort and compassion are prioritized.
Compassionate technology is the difference between a NICU parent worrying about a diaper change in an isolette fearing contamination of an unprotected IV line, and giving parents and care providers the reassurance the lines are guarded. With added protection, premature babies can be free to move and do skin-to-skin with a low risk of a blood-stream infection ever happening.
Compassionate technology is the difference between a cringeworthy IV dressing removal that tears at skin and leaves a sticky, stinging aftermath and an IV dressing removal that doesn’t wake a sleeping premature baby in the NICU.
Compassionate technology is the difference between a new mom who is struggling to keep her C-section incision from opening while she visits her baby in the NICU, and a mom who’s provided with a specialized transparent dressing that promotes undisturbed healing.
Today, technology can be designed to favor the most vulnerable - to favor connection, hope, healing, and understanding. And this is the wave of healthcare innovation that will leave a lasting mark, most especially on the smallest of patients in the NICU.
Unicef: The first 1,000 days of life
CDC: Early brain development and health
Harvard: The science of early childhood development
March of Dimes: Long term health effects of premature birth
National Public Radio: The heartbreak and cost of losing a baby in America
OakBend Medical Centre: Which babies need care in the NICU?
Stanford Medicine Children’s Health: Neonatal Intensive Care Units
Johns Hopkins Medicine: Respiratory Distress Syndrome
Stanford Medicine Children’s Health: Premature Babies’ Survival Rate is Climbing, Study Says
The Washington Post: The World’s Most Premature Baby
SickKids: Premature Babies - Outcomes
National Library of Medicine: Healthcare-associated infections in a neonatal intensive care unit
Frontiers in Pediatrics: Factors Influencing Implementation of Family-Centered Care in a Neonatal Intensive Care Unit