NICU Designed to Mimic Calm of Womb


The include the parents of little Carmen Larsen. Her large intestine grew when she was in the womb on the outside of her body instead of the inside, a condition called gastricscesis. But at 35 weeks, her condition has been repaired. Now she’s going off the ventilator is beginning to recover.

Carmen was transferred to Children’s Hospital’s NICU soon after her birth last November. She has had four surgeries so far and is weeks away from going home. But she is expected to eventually do well.

“This unit is like no other unit,” said NICU nurse Shauna Carette. “The very sickest babies from the whole region come here.”

As a specialty hospital, doctors and nurses at Children’s see some of the most complicated birth defects: tiny hearts, brains or other organs that must be fixed immediately for the child to survive.

But this NICU and others in the region are designed for babies to ultimately thrive. The dark and quiet rooms reduce stimulation. The calm is especially important for babies born prematurely as their fragile brains are still developing.

The old model of a bright and noisy space worked well for doctors, but not for sick babies.

“We would notice when a baby over here was having an emergency situation and there was yelling, we would see the others in the area desaturate,” said Dr. Craig Jackson, NICU director.

“Oxygen levels would go down, heart rates would go up. These are factors associated with stress in babies.”

Babies who are stressed have a tougher time gaining weight, so reducing stress has become an evolving area of neonatal medicine.

Just as doctors work to develop new medicines and surgeries to heal the tiny babies, there is an ongoing quest to make the baby’s experience in the NICU just a little more like what they felt in their mother’s womb.