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St. Charles’ NICU launches family centered care initiatives to help small patients flourish

Dec. 7, 2018

St. Charles’ NICU launches family centered care initiatives to help small patients flourish

BEND, Ore. – Simply being held and read to every day has the potential to help the tiniest patients thrive.

That’s why St. Charles Bend’s Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU) has implemented two nurse-led programs to ensure prematurely born babies are cradled and exposed to reading as much as possible.

Through the Cuddler program, volunteers spend time in the unit holding babies whose parents may have travel or work obligations, or who may just need a rest.

Dr. Robert Pfister, the NICU’s medical director, said studies show that early skin-to-skin contact helps babies sleep better, cry less and have more stable heart rates and temperatures almost immediately. In the long run, they experience better weight gain, spend less time in the hospital and demonstrate improved long-term behavioral and cognitive development. Skin-to-skin contact has also been shown to increase breastfeeding success, and can even make certain medical procedures less painful for infants.

“This is the soft side of medicine,” he said. “If you’re exposed to warmth and love, you do better. Human touch is healing.”

The program now has 15 volunteers and on most days, at least one is in the NICU to hold babies. All volunteers receive the same background check as St. Charles caregivers, and parents opt into the program only if they’re comfortable with another person holding their baby.

The NICU’s other new program—Reach Out and Read—has been shown to have powerful benefits not only for infants, but also their parents. Babies who are frequently read to starting as early as zero- to three-months-old can experience improvements in their acquisition of language and math skills.

“There is no time when it’s too early to begin,” Pfister said. “The babies pick up the rhythm, tones and inflection. The more words they are exposed to, the better prepared they are to read.”

While reading to every infant is important, it is especially impactful for NICU babies. A recent study in the Journal of Developmental and Behavioral Pediatrics found that reading to babies in the NICU can help parents develop the same feelings of intimacy that parents of healthy newborns cultivate in the days and weeks after a baby's birth.

“These are very traumatic times for parents and we’re really trying to focus on caring for the whole family unit, not just the baby,” said NICU Manager Randa Bates.

Importantly, she noted, the benefits of reading for both baby and parents only happens when the reading is done in-person versus an audio recording. To support that, the NICU provides each family with a book, which is donated by organizations like Reach Out and Read and NICU Families Northwest.

“We want families to remember their time in the NICU as the time they got to learn about and bond with their baby even though they were in this generally sterile environment that historically has been, ‘don’t touch, don’t talk,’” Bates said. “It’s about teaching parents to be parents of a medically unstable patient.”

About St. Charles Health System

St. Charles Health System, Inc., headquartered in Bend, Ore., owns and operates St. Charles Bend, Madras, Prineville and Redmond. It also owns family care clinics in Bend, Madras, Prineville, Redmond and Sisters. St. Charles is a private, not-for-profit Oregon corporation and is the largest employer in Central Oregon with more than 4,200 caregivers. In addition, there are more than 350 active medical staff members and nearly 200 visiting medical staff members who partner with the health system to provide a wide range of care and service to our communities.