10 Fascinating Facts About the NICU

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Every year, roughly 10 to 15 percent of babies end up premature or sick and head into the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit, or NICU. And while it's hard to cuddle your baby in an incubator, parents should thank their lucky stars that these cutting-edge facilities exist, and have evolved light years since they first opened their doors.

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Check out these surprising facts about NICU and you'll come away confident that those babies are in good hands -- and hear some ways that you can make a difference during your baby's NICU stay, too!

  1. The first "NICU" appeared at amusement parks. In 1901, Dr. Martin Couney introduced the first incubator at the World Fair in Omaha, Nebraska. From there, "incubator baby side shows" -- entire rows of incubators staffed by physicians and nurses -- toured various world fairs until 1943, and it became the longest running show at Coney Island. Fortunately, premie babies are no longer treated this way.
  2. You couldn't always see through incubators. Before the 1940s, incubators weren't clear ... which made seeing and treating the babies inside a challenge. Once transparent plastic walls were introduced, "Nurses and doctors stared at the naked babies as if they were seeing them for the first time," according to historical documents, and results improved immensely.
  3. NICUs had a powerful advocate: JFK. In 1963, President John F. Kennedy's newborn son, born premature at 37 weeks, died due to immature lungs. This tragedy sparked awareness about premature infants and led to NICU units being established across the country.
  4. NICU survival rates have come a long way. Nearly one in 10 babies are born premature -- and 30 years ago, less than 25 percent of preemies survived. Now, almost 90 percent of preemies survive, including infants born as early as 24 weeks.
  5. NICUs can save really small babies. The smallest baby to ever survive and be discharged from NICU is Rumaisa Rahman, a twin who was born in 2004 at 26 weeks weighing just 9.2 ounces. Both she and her twin sister Madeline suffer no chronic health problems -- giving hope to parents of preemies everywhere.

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  6. NICU ain't cheap. A stay at the Ritz or Four Seasons has nothing on NICU, where the cost to care for one infant often exceeds $3,500 per day. Prolonged stays can easily top $1 million.
  7. Some NICUs are noisy. Between the beeping monitors, ringing phones, and never-ending stream of family members cooing over incubators, NICUs can be noisy places. In fact, one study found that the average sound levels in NICUs range from 54 to 61 decibels -- that's above the 50 decibel levels recommended by the American Academy of Pediatrics. All in all, it's amazing those babies get any sleep!
  8. Most preemies stay in the NICU until their due date. So that means if your baby was born six weeks early, he will likely stay in NICU for six weeks to help them "catch up" developmentally to full-term infants.
  9. NICU won't stop you from bonding. Sure, bonding with baby would be easier if you were hanging out at home, but the time you spend in NICU does make a difference. In one study, the more parents talked with their infants in NICU, the better their language skills at 7 and 18 months down the road.
  10. Moms can help out at NICU, too. Think only doctors and nurses can nurture the health of a fragile NICU baby? On the contrary, a handful of hospitals are allowing parents to care for their own infants for more than eight hours a day. And the results of one pilot study of 42 newborns show promise: Preemies cared for by parents in NICU gained 25 percent more weight than babies cared for by nurses; and infection rates dropped to zero compared to nurses' 11 percent. Here's to hoping more hospitals will allow parents to pitch in!

What surprised you most about NICU?

 

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