(Content Sponsored by Huggies® Brand, Kimberly-Clark Corporation)
My son Jackson was born 16 weeks premature. Weighing just 1 pound, 8 ounces, he was considered a micropreemie and would experience a long stay in the neonatal ICU.
In the hours and days that followed his birth, I felt empty and helpless. It was a feeling I never associated or expected with the birth of an infant.
As I became more familiar with the NICU, I still felt like a visitor, unable to contribute meaningfully to my son’s care. I couldn’t hold him or feed him or change his diaper. I was told that too much noise could be overstimulating, so I whispered prayers over him and told him that I knew he was a fighter. But it was hard to bond with my baby. I struggled to develop an emotional connection with a baby I couldn’t hug or feed.
It was about seven days before I was invited to change my son’s diaper. I was excited, nervous and scared because Jackson was still very small and his skin was delicate. I will always be grateful to the NICU nurse who patiently talked me through it — an ordinary task to her and parents of full-term newborns. In the time she spent with me for this one diaper change, she could have changed 10 diapers.
Still, she realized the significance of the moment for me; this was the first time I was involved in any sort of routine care for my baby – our first bonding experience.
Integrating family into the NICU experience
Family-integrated care, sometimes called family-centered care, is a care model implemented in the NICU that encourages greater parental involvement in the day-to-day care of infants. In fact, the National Association of Neonatal Nurses’ Age-Appropriate Care of the Premature and Critically Ill Hospitalized Infant Guideline for Practice includes specific guidance for the family’s role in the NICU.
NANN recognizes that a family’s presence in the NICU is irreplaceable and has an impact on lifelong physiological and psychological events. The neonatal nursing group recommends the following practices for implementing family-integrated care:
• The family (as defined by the infant’s parents or guardians) has unrestricted 24-hour access to the infant and is provided the opportunity to parent and participate in care.
• The family’s own emotional well-being, confidence and competence is assessed and documented weekly.
• The family has access to resources and support services that assist in short-term and long-term parenting, decision-making, and parental well-being.
When most full-term infants are born, parents can begin bonding with their baby almost immediately, something I never thought I would miss out on during my own pregnancy. A study published in January 2017 in the journal Pediatrics indicated that practices such as kangaroo care, or skin-to-skin contact by placing the baby directly on the parent’s chest, were beneficial for newborns, particularly for premature and low-birth-weight infants.
Bonding with babies also has been shown to improve parents’ mental health states, and a strong, healthy bond between parent and baby has been shown to result in more competent parenting over a child’s life.
These small interventions in care, and something as simple as changing a diaper, can be a parent’s first opportunity to build this critical bond during a baby’s NICU stay.
Patient turned advocate
Nurses and other healthcare professionals are the experts when it comes to the clinical care of an infant. After my firsthand experience, I was impassioned to become an advocate for family-integrated care and to help other parents like me. In 2010, I founded a nonprofit organization, Hand to Hold, to provide support to NICU and bereaved families. That first diaper change not only boosted my confidence as a mother, but also helped alleviate the helplessness I felt that first week of my son’s life. Hand to Hold strives to inform, inspire and empower other NICU families.
In addition to my role as a NICU advocate, I’m also a member of the Huggies Nursing Advisory Council. Our group is comprised of multidisciplinary experts in neonatal care who work to educate and inform research with the goal of delivering the best care for babies and families.
This year, we launched the Every Change Matters™ Nurse Education Program, a quick 30-minute tool that shows how nurses can apply developmental diapering and skincare techniques in their own hospitals. This resource is helpful when establishing a family-integrated care model in the hospital, as it provides strategies to teach and engage parents in caring for and bonding with their infant during this crucial time.