Watching a newborn go straight from your arms to treatment in the neonatal intensive care unit can be a nightmare for new parents. The feeling of helplessness that often follows makes it all the more stressful. Given how emotional of an experience it is, you may be wondering why moms generally can't stay with their newborns in the NICU. With one hospital changing its policy to allow moms behind the veil — and making headlines for it — it may be time to examine the reason for keeping mom and baby separated.
For those of you new to the world of newborns, here's a bit of information on the NICU. The NICU is defined by KidsHealth.org as "an intensive care unit created for sick newborns who need specialized treatment." Along with being called the NICU, this part of the hospital is sometimes referred to as a "special care nursery," an "intensive care nursery," or "newborn intensive care."
The NICU is where the youngest patients receive treatment if they are born prematurely, experience problems during their delivery, or show signs of health issues during their first few days of life. Because premie babies are particularly susceptible to infection because they often don't have fully developed immune systems, according to What to Expect, they are often not treated in the same room or unit as mom.
Arkansas Children's Hospital, for example, provides comprehensive information on visitation policies, which explain some of the reasoning behind limiting access to the NICU. Most importantly, the aim to lessen the spread of diseases, particularly the flu.
A study published in the Journal of Perinatal Neonatal Nurses found that such policies are common in NICUs across the country. The study's author Terry Griffin wrote:
Many neonatal intensive care units continue to have "visitation" policies that restrict parent's access to their infants, failing to recognize parents as partners.
The NICU is a crowded place, with numerous babies around in comparable health conditions, but Griffin suggests that parents and babies alike benefit from more family-focused care.
The argument of limited exposure in the NICU is somewhat weakened by the fact that friends and family members are often allowed in for visitation for limited periods of time. Simply touching a doorknob when entering a room is enough contact to spread germs, according to Everyday Health. Therefore, not allowing moms to remain in the NICU with their newborns might do very little to reduce the spread of viruses and bacteria, if moms are entering the room anyway.
But for many hospitals, those are the policies. And they can be hard on a new mom in a time that would normally be filled with bonding and preparations to head home. Handing new babies off to be treated in the NICU can be very tough to do. Julie de Salaberry, director of Neonatal Intensive Care at BC Women’s Hospital, told Babble that the separation has a negative impact on the mothers who are missing their child:
There is substantive literature that reports the single most stressful event for mothers with babies in the NICU is separation, regardless of the severity of illness.
Rather than keep moms out, a solution could be to move babies in with mom in a special unit. One hospital in Vancouver, Canada is doing just that. The BC Women’s Hospital recently a new NICU located in the new Teck Acute Care Centre, according to Babble. The change was made in an attempt to ease the painful separation that moms and babies have to endure during time in the NICU. This new combined care unit has only just opened this past Sunday, so there is little information on how well it's working out, but de Salaberry told Babble that the hospital expects great things from the change:
We anticipate improved infant and maternal care outcomes, including a reduction in length of stay for mothers and newborns, improved/optimized attachment, and an overall improved experience for mothers and newborns by reducing maternal stress.
Although de Salaberry admitted to Babble that it was not an easy dream to bring to fruition, the hospital made it a reality with an ample amount of research and innovation.
While added combined care to every hospital's NICU would be a major overhaul, weighing the benefits (and risks) of keeping moms with their newborns during treatment may be the next step in improving postnatal care. Given the expected benefits laid out by de Salaberry, it is certainly worth considering.
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