Rachel and Lewis Freeman hold their newborn Jack

Hands-on healing at VGH

An ongoing research project is seeing parents of premature babies become more involved with their child’s care during his or her stay.

A new approach to involving parents in the care of their prematurely born babies could lead to new standardized practices across the country.

When Rachel and Lewis Freeman’s baby boy Jack was born more than two months early in October, they ended up in the place no new parent wants to be: Victoria General Hospital’s neonatal intensive care unit.

When the new parents were offered the chance to have a more hands-on role with Jack during his time in hospital, they jumped at it.

“I was here everyday anyways,” Rachel said.  “I was on (maternity) leave, so I can’t imagine not being here.”

“Something that was always on my mind was him thinking the nurses are his parents, because, you know, he’s fresh into the world and that’s all he sees,” Lewis said. “With Rachel being here eight hours a day, I think it really helped with him getting to know us.”

As recently as 40 years ago, parents would not have had any opportunity to interact or be involved with their premature baby, but the attitudes towards parent involvement are evolving.

Now an ongoing research project at VGH is seeing parents of premature babies become more involved with their child’s care during his or her stay.

“The goal was to empower the parents,” said Dr. Richard Taylor, neonatologist and principal investigator. “The whole goal of the study is to improve confidence in caring for their child.”

Parents are taught how to care for their newborn, about what special needs the child may have as a premature baby, and about the medical attention the child is receiving, to help the parent feel involved and assured.

For the infant, the extra level of care is meant to lead to faster healing, quicker growth and, therefore, a shorter hospital stay. It also gives a child an earlier chance to bond with his or her parents.

“The outcomes do appear to be better for the babies,” Taylor said.

Justine Sparks had her baby Emma at just under 32 weeks, about nine shy of the average newborn and with bradycardia, a condition which slows a baby’s heart rate. Sparks read about the program in a pamphlet and decided she wanted to be involved.

“It appealed to me because I really wanted her home and if it made things easier for her, it was something I wanted to do,” Sparks said. “You went from being scared, the big unknown, to being really comfortable and knowing exactly what’s going on with her.”

Emma spent three weeks in the unit and by the time mother and daughter headed home, both were doing much better and were on their way to a normal, healthy future, Sparks said.

“Amazing. She’s growing like a weed,” she said.

The study started in Toronto and has since moved to random hospitals across the country. Certain conditions must be met for the infant to be eligible to participate, including a certain level of health. At least one parent must be able to spend eight hours a day at the hospital with their child.

So far only two children have qualified for the study in Victoria, but Taylor is hoping to try the care with 50 babies over the next year or two.

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