In the neonatal intensive care unit, keeping fragile infants alive is the number one priority.
But new research from Washington University suggests doctors and parents should also consider the amount of background noise premature babies are hearing.
The study, which followed nearly 100 infants in St. Louis, found that preemies in the St. Louis Children's Hospital NICU experience different “sound environments” than full-term babies — potentially affecting their development.
About 1 in 10 babies was born prematurely in the United States in 2017, with rates of premature births inching up in recent years.
In St. Louis, the rate of premature birth is among the highest in the country, at 12.6%.
Premature babies — born before 37 weeks gestation — can face a host of health issues, including cerebral palsy, vision problems and difficulty hearing.
Many spend weeks or months in the NICU, where they’re exposed to background noise from ventilators and other equipment, said Washington University assistant professor Bobbi Pineda.
“It’s not necessarily the noise that the machine makes, but the alarms that are associated with it,” Pineda said.
Pineda and her colleagues suspected preemies might experience different types of background noise than full-term babies in delivery rooms, so they put it to the test.
Using tiny recorders tucked in the babies’ beds, they eavesdropped on the sounds the newborns were experiencing.
Over a 16-hour period, the NICU preemies heard more electronic sounds and about 14,000 fewer spoken words than full-term babies.
Language exposure is critical in the first year of life — which raises the question of whether the NICU environment itself may affect development and language learning.
“Sometimes when the focus is so much on the medical environment, we lose sight of these other things that babies need at this development stage,” said Pineda. “An important one is language.”
The research team has incorporated the results into a hospital program for preemies known as Supporting and Enhancing NICU Sensory Experiences, which helps parents learn how to stimulate their babies’ sensory development.
The goal is to help parents of preemies navigate a confusing and stressful process, said Pineda, whose three children were all born prematurely.
“You have this fragile baby that is much smaller than any baby that you’ve ever seen before,” she said. “As a parent, it can be really overwhelming. This is just a way of trying to help families feel empowered and feel like they can engage.”
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