Family-centered care in the NICU


Hospitals are slow to change, especially when changes – such as the inclusion of families in patient care – are not big money makers. Even so, in a competitive marketplace, hospitals are beginning to realize that patient and family satisfaction develops loyal customers.

When patients and families have a good experience, they are likely to return to the hospital and recommend the hospital to others. From a business perspective, it makes sense to develop family-oriented care in hospital specialty units such as the neonatal intensive care unit.

Dr. Alison M. Heru

Dr. Alison M. Heru

Involving families in the NICU also reduces the neonate’s length of stay (Nurs Adm Q. 2009 Jan-Mar;33[1]32-7).

COPE is a manualized intervention program comprising DVDs and a workbook.

The DVDs provide parents with educational information about the appearance and behavioral characteristics of their premature infants and about how they can participate in their infants’ care, meet their needs, enhance the quality of interaction with their infants, and facilitate their development.

The workbook skills-building activities assist parents in implementing the educational information (for example, learning how to read their infants’ awake states and stress cues, keeping track of important developmental milestones, determining what behaviors are helpful when their infants are stressed).

Parents listen to the COPE educational information on DVDs as they read it in their workbooks. The first intervention in COPE is delivered to the parents 2-4 days after the infant is admitted to the NICU. The second COPE intervention is delivered 2-4 days after the first intervention, and the third intervention is delivered to parents 1-4 days prior to the infant’s discharge from the NICU. Parents receive the fourth COPE intervention 1 week after the infant is discharged from the hospital. Each of the four DVDs has corresponding skills-building activities that parents complete after they listen to the educational information on the DVDs.

The problem

In NICUs, families are not the primary focus of care. To nursing staff, parents are an unknown factor. Parents may silence alarms or open cribs to touch the baby, not realizing that by doing so, they are dysregulating the neonate’s delicate environment. They see nurses moving things around, and so feel they should be able to do it, too. Parents come in many varieties. Some parents sit quietly and appear overwhelmed. Some parents behave erratically. Some parents may smell of alcohol or marijuana, putting everyone in the NICU on alert. Assessing and intervening with parents is helpful to nurses, reduces tension between nurse and parent, and ensures that the daily caring for the neonate is smooth and optimal. Nurses are eager to help with parents.

A new mother holds her premature baby at Kapiolani Medical Center NICU in Honolulu. Wikimedia Commons

A new mother holds her premature baby at Kapiolani Medical Center NICU in Honolulu.

Nursing perspective

From the nurses’ perspective, the parents are not the patient! Nurses have not been trained to assess and manage distressed parents. Nurses can provide basic education about the baby’s medical condition but do not have time to explain the details that overanxious parents might demand. The nurses recognize that some parents are under severe stress and do not want to leave the bedside, even to care for their own needs. The nurses recognize that some parents have their own health conditions but are unsure how to approach this issue. Nurses welcome education about how to intervene and how to refer parents to appropriate resources.

Parental perspective

Parents are distressed and uncertain about the fate of their newborns. There is an immediate need to gain as much information as possible about the baby’s medical condition and to understand what the nurses are “doing to our baby.” There may be concern that the nurse seems more bonded to the baby than the parents. There may be a lack of understanding of when the babies can be handled and what and when they can be fed. There is significant emotional distress about “not being able to take the baby home.” Parents may want to assign blame or may feel overwhelmed with guilt. For families with poor coping skills, fear and anger may predominate and can be directed at the nurses – an immediate and ever available target. Generally, parents want to be included as much as possible in the care of their children.

Postpartum disorders in the NICU

It is expected that having a baby in the NICU is stressful. However, a meta-analysis of 38 studies of stress in parents of preterm infants, compared with term infants, found that parents of preterm children experience only slightly more stress than do parents of term children. There is decreasing parental stress from the 1980s onward, probably because of the increased quality of care for preterm infants. These studies included 3,025 parents of preterm and low-birth-weight infants (PLoS One 2013;8[2]:e54992).

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