One of the most difficult aspects of having a premature baby in the NICU is how helpless and disconnected parents can end up feeling. It can be traumatizing to see your baby hooked up to all kinds of machines, and for others to be in charge of their round-the-click care. Of course you want your baby to receive all the life-saving medical attention they need, but you also want nothing more than to scoop them up in your arms and simply go home.
But that’s precisely what one hospital in the UK is trying to change, with a new program that allows parents to become a whole lot more involved in caring for their preemies. According to the BBC, St James’s University Hospital in Leeds is the first hospital in the UK to implement what’s being called a “family integrated care system.”
The innovative program puts parents in charge of caring for their preemies — at least when it comes to the majority of their care — instead of nurses and other medical staff. If all of that sounds sort of worrisome to you, here’s why it shouldn’t: Parents receive a thorough training, and are watched over carefully until they get it right. A few weeks in, they become pros at it all, and are expected to do most of the everyday care for their preemies, including temperature taking, feeding, and even inserting nasogastric feeding tubes.
Dr. Liz McKechnie, a neonatologist at St. James’s Hospital, recently told the BBC that the program’s ultimate goal is to put the parents at “the very center of the team caring for the baby.”
McKechnie assures that the program was not put in place to cut costs, and that nurses have not been fired as a result. In fact, the nurses in the ward probably spend more time training the parents than they would simply caring for the babies themselves. And so far, it’s certainly paid off.
The hospital says the results have been pretty incredible so far, with breastfeeding rates increasing, babies making strides in their long-term development, and many going home much sooner than expected. And the parents of these sweet babies are seeing (and feeling) wonderful results, as well.
“It is just nice to feel like a mum, rather than just somebody watching,” Anna Cox recently shared in an interview on the Victoria Derbyshire Show.
Cox’s daughter Lola was born at just 23 weeks. Sadly, Lola had a twin brother who didn’t make it. Cox was told that her daughter would have a very tough road ahead of her, and might not make it herself.
“During labor, one of the neo-natal consultants came to see us and painted a really bad picture that she could have all sorts of problems,” Anna shared.
But thanks to the gentle and highly-attentive care Cox was able to give her daughter at St James’s, Lola got to go home much earlier than expected, just 14 weeks after she was born.
“Without the family integrated care we would’ve been in a lot longer,” says Cox, “Lola is still on oxygen and [otherwise] they wouldn’t have allowed us to come home with that. I feel really confident in everything they taught us.”
Although the program is new to St. James’s Hospital, it’s not an entirely novel idea. In the 1970s, a hospital in the Soviet Union actually stumbled upon the idea of “family integrated care” by accident. According to the BBC, the Soviet Union was facing all sorts of budget cuts, and began to give parents a greater role in the NICU out of necessity.
But they soon found that babies were thriving as a result. Just as the parents at St. James’s Hospital have seen, Russian parents reported higher rates of “skin-to-skin” time with their babies, increased breastfeeding rates, and their babies went home sooner.
As the BBC points out, St. James’s isn’t the only hospital that has tried this program out. Hospitals in Canada, Australia, and New Zealand have adopted versions of the program as well, with promising results.
To some, a program like this might sound dangerous, or possibly too time consuming for parents, especially if they have other responsibilities like full-time jobs and other children. But the program at St. James’s is so successful that it looks like it’s here to stay.
“Nobody wants to stop it, it is definitely here to stay, everybody can see the benefits of it,” shared Dr. McKechnie. “The fact is that families are going home more confident and more able to care for their babies, and that means a lot.”
Here’s hoping similar programs open up across the U.S. soon enough!