Recently, a pediatric research team from Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia reported that premature babies have a higher chance of survival when they are born in high-level, high-technology neonatal intensive care units (NICUs). That should come as no surprise as there have been tremendous leaps and bounds made in medical care for babies, but have those innovations in care and design kept pace with trends in adult healthcare design? Hospitals are responding positively to the research carried out by associations and are slowly but surely translating this information into designing NICUs.

Since the early 1990s there has been a progressive awareness in design to provide semi-private and private rooms instead of ward-style NICUs so as to address infection control issues, individual lighting needs, acoustic concerns for these highly sensitive babies, and more. It also gives the mother and family the privacy they crave at such an emotional time.

I can give a little insight into the thoughts and feelings going through a parent's mind as they sit for countless hours next to their child's incubator. A few years ago, the NICU at a teaching hospital here in Cleveland was the only home my moderately preterm and premature child knew for close to a month. Before the surgery, I was referred to this hospital because my primary care hospital lacked the required neonatal care.

When I visited my premature baby in the ward-style NICU while still in a rather fragile state, it was both awe-inspiring and heart-stopping to see these minute infants fighting for each breath with countless tubes and instruments attached to them. My family and I fondly referred to them as my child’s “roomies” and joked that maybe one day they’d have a reunion. I would tip-toe into the room and immediately count the number of incubators to see if there was a new roomie or if one of the infants had become strong enough to face the world and gone home.

Unfortunately, one day it struck me that sometimes all the babies weren't going home. Despite the most superior advancements in modern medicine, some of these highly premature infants cannot survive outside the womb. So when I would see an empty space being cleaned in readiness for the next baby, it was no longer a happy thought of the baby that went home—it became an emotional rollercoaster of fear and hope as I wondered what may happen with my child. Was my fear unfounded? Maybe, but I later realized that if it had been a semi-private or private room, I may have had a little less trepidation and anxiety.

Designing NICUs that will allow mother, family, and baby to be together for longer periods of time can only serve to help mother and infant through such a harrowing experience. NICUs designed with opportunities for privacy also allow mother to be in a more relaxed environment as she learns how to breastfeed her child, provides kangaroo care, and absorbs very vital post-discharge instructions with guidance from the nursing staff. There's so much to take in—not only the care of the child but also the care of the mother that will aid the baby's growth. 

Every healthcare design trend that improves outcomes for adult patients may not always translate directly to help this small population but as more evidence-based design research emerges, there’s no denying that a mother or family that is able to sleep beside their child, have access to nature views, quiet surroundings, solitude with their baby, and a well-lit room will respond more positively through this traumatic time. 

Click here for more information on designing NICUs.