When Amialya Durairaj was preparing to welcome twins into the world, she never anticipated a 14-month children’s hospital stay. Yet, like more than 15 million babies around the globe each year, Durairaj’s girls were born too soon, or before 37 weeks of pregnancy.
“For days, all I could do was cry,” Durairaj said. “I felt unqualified to provide care for my tiny babies and overwhelmed by medical jargon.”
Without proper care and nutrition, premature babies face a higher risk of death or a lifetime of serious health issues—news which can be debilitating for families. What is hopeful is that helping these vulnerable children survive and thrive is possible, especially when health providers, parents and other caregivers work together in clear and specific ways.
On this World Prematurity Day, the USAID funded Every Preemie—SCALE project (Every Preemie) is highlighting the importance of family engagement in caring for small and sick babies through its new technical brief, “Family Participation in the Care of the Inpatient Newborn.”
“The nursing staff engaged my husband and I in routine caregiving, which increased our confidence in our parenting abilities. It helped us bond with our babies and gave us a meaningful role to play in the process,” said Durairaj, who served as a lead contributor to the brief. “By sharing both information and decision-making, our physicians helped us transition into our role as our twins’ best advocates.”
Evidence shows that family engagement in caring for preterm babies improves survival rates and development long term. The practice avoids separating children from their families while they receive specialized in-hospital care, and instead utilizes parent involvement to better care for the babies.
There are many ways parents can and should be involved in their child’s inpatient care. Mothers, fathers, and other caregivers can wrap their baby skin-to-skin for warmth and bonding. Other routine activities such as changing diapers and taking temperatures allow parents to bond with their babies while becoming more confident in their caregiving abilities. Parents who help feed their babies, whether by breastfeeding, cup feeding, or tube feeding breast milk, learn to read their baby’s cues. And parents who are involved in caring for their babies build confidence and competence to care for their child after discharge from the hospital, improving their emotional resiliency.
Overall, family engagement benefits babies, families, health professionals, policy makers, and society at large. Parents are empowered as primary caregivers and create strong bonds with their new babies. Healthcare professionals are less burdened due to parental assistance and learn from parental insight regarding their babies. Most importantly, family engagement leads to higher survival rates and improved development of small and sick babies.
Approximately one million babies die due to complications from preterm birth every year, and more than 75% of these babies could be saved with essential care. To see the full benefit of family engagement in the care of preterm babies, policy makers and hospital administrators must encourage health care professionals to fully realize the advantages of working with parents as partners in care. Advocates and healthcare professionals must educate parents as their babies’ primary caregivers. Families, healthcare professionals, hospital administrators, advocates, and policy makers all must champion policies that support family engagement in the health system.
For more information about small and sick babies, World Prematurity Day, and family engagement, visit EveryPreemie.org. The new “Family Participation in the Care of the Inpatient Newborn” technical brief and the full Do No Harm series are available to the public, in addition to more detailed information about the work Every Preemie has shared in the first four years of the project.
Written by Hannah Connolly