Having a baby in a special care unit is one of the biggest challenges a new mother can face.
Rather than spending more time in the womb or in mama’s arms, babies in NICUs spend quite a bit of time in an incubator or hospital bassinet. This means they must struggle with an unnatural and unfamiliar environment.
Most mothers spend as much time as possible with their little ones. If a baby has a long stay in the NICU, however, visitation restrictions, and other children needing care at home might mean many NICU babies spend quite a few hours each day without their mama.
One particular challenge NICU babies face in an unnatural environment is getting enough restful sleep. Sleep is vital for all human beings, but especially for those who need to grow and heal.
Special Care Babies Sleep Better While Hearing Mama’s Voice
The biological norm for newborns is to be skin to skin with mama as much as possible.
Newborns tend to sleep best when they are in their mother’s arms. But what does this mean for NICU babies who can’t always be with their mothers?
New research has found NICU babies might sleep better when they can hear their mother’s voice.
Recording Of Mother’s Voice Helps NICU Babies Sleep
When you bring a healthy newborn home, you spend quite a bit of time soothing your infant to sleep. You will often use shushing, rocking and walking.
NICU babies might have rocking and skin to skin when their mamas are visiting, but when mamas are away, the babies must settle on their own.
The NICU staff do their best to make sure all the medical and nutritional needs of these fragile infants are met. Sometimes there’s an extra hand to help soothe the babies, but this isn’t always the case.
Because sleep is vital to helping preemies and medically fragile infants heal, the researchers at the University of Michigan C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital wanted to discover what simple measures might help improve the quality of babies’ sleep during a NICU stay.
For the study they enrolled 50 babies born after 33 weeks gestation. They found babies slept better and longer when recordings of their mothers’ voices played continuously.
Lead study author and paediatric neurologist, Renée Shellhaas, M.D., M.S., said, “In the hospital, we take care of babies who are not in their usual environment, which can hinder their ability to have normal sleep”.
“Even though we do our best to make the NICU as quiet an environment as possible, there are hospital disruptions that are unavoidable. Alarms, monitors, ventilators, bedside care and even just the building’s heating and cooling noises may be disruptive. We designed this study to see how the sound environment in the NICU potentially influences sleep, and to see if there are relatively simple interventions that may make a difference”.
Why Is Sleep In The NICU So Important?
When my daughter was born, at 31 weeks, I found she was almost always asleep, at first – whether I was there or not.
After a couple of weeks, however, she began to exhibit more typical newborn behaviour, including being a bit restless when left alone.
Although she was still less alert than a full-term newborn, her newborn survival instincts were kicking in.
Babies are hard-wired to be with a caregiver. Even though we know they’re safe, their little bodies are fully aware of how vulnerable they are. Being safe in an incubator doesn’t mean much to a body whose instincts are telling it to be worried a predator could be lurking.
I did my best to be there as much as possible. We practised lots of skin to skin to help foster a secure attachment, and to help her feel more secure in this big world.
However, as we approached 34, 35 and 36 weeks, we saw an increase in her restlessness whenever she was placed in the hospital bassinet.
This type of behaviour is why researchers began to look for ways to improve NICU babies’ sleep. Sleep is essential for growth and healing. But how can we combine the need for sleep with the need to be in an intensive care unit?
Shellhaas said: “Sleep is really a marker of how well a baby’s brain is functioning, and healthy sleep is critical to development. Babies’ brains develop significantly over those first few weeks. Because of this, strategies for babies in the NICU also need to be tailored to gestational age”.
“The NICU environment influences sleep. If we can find simple tools to help babies in the unit get higher quality sleep, they could make a big difference to infants’ health and development, especially for those who must stay in the hospital for an extended time”.
My Baby Is In The NICU, What Does This Mean For Me?
This relatively small study provided some newer evidence, but we’ve known for a long time both sleep and close contact with mama are vital for newborns.
If your baby is currently in the NICU, you can talk to her care team about things you can safely do to help improve quality sleep and bonding.
It’s important to note what works well for some babies, and in some NICUs, might not be appropriate for others, but it’s always worth discussing options with the care team.
Here are some things NICU parents find helpful in promoting bonding and rest:
- Spend as much time in the NICU as possible practising skin to skin, also known as kangaroo care.
- When baby can’t be taken out of the incubator, read a story, sing a song, or chat with or near your baby.
- Take a receiving blanket or onesie home and wear it close to your skin. You can take it back to be used in the NICU; it will give your baby the comfort of your scent.
- If the care team approves, make a recording of you singing, reading or just talking and have them play it while you’re away.
Having a baby in the NICU is a huge challenge, but it’s something parents and babies can overcome.
Be sure to read Baby In The NICU? 17 Coping Tips For Parents to help you navigate this challenging journey.