Intuitively, most of us accept the notion that family closeness and parent-child interaction supports healthy infant development. The instinct to cuddle, soothe, and play with babies is universally recognized as good, healthy, and normal. Unfortunately, premature birth introduces situations that are far from normal. The reality of life in the NICU presents a real challenge for parents as they try to navigate how to care for their children when so much is out of their control. A baby’s fragility, medical state, and the abundance of medical equipment in the NICU makes physical contact difficult and sometimes overwhelming. And the unfortunate result can be reduced contact between parents and their babies. But, as many parents know and research continues to demonstrate, close family bonds and parent-child interaction have such tremendous health benefits for babies that high-quality, family-centered care is becoming an important goal in NICUs around the world. So I wanted to explore some of the research in the area of family-centered care and share it here. For families, this body of research can serve as encouragement; your time spent with your baby in the NICU really does make a difference in his or her development! Being as involved as you’re able, and connecting with your baby through touch, scent, and sound, is good medicine for both you and your baby.

"Closeness and Separation in the Neonatal Intensive Care," published in the journal Acta Paediatrica in 2012, is a review of scientific studies that consider the impact of parent-child closeness in the NICU. The authors discuss positive outcomes tied to infant-parent bonding, as well as how the physical and cultural environment of the NICU affect family involvement. They conclude that, “Both physical and emotional parent–infant closeness should be facilitated in neonatal units taking into account the socio-economic, political and cultural variations in different countries” (Flacking et al., 2012). This study provides a good, comprehensive overview of the benefits of family-centered care and includes recommendations for implementing the practice.

"Recommendations for Involving the Family in Developmental Care in the NICU Baby," published in the Journal of Perinatology in 2015, discusses family-centered developmental care and efforts to include parents as an integral part of their baby's care team. Regarding parent involvement efforts, the researchers found:

These interventions have the potential to lessen the adverse impact of environmental stressors to which NICU babies are exposed, ultimately lessening the chance of poor developmental outcomes. In addition, positive benefits of reduced stress and improved parent mental health outcomes ultimately can further improve parents' relationships with their babies. (Craig et al. 2015)

The authors give plenty of specifics concerning how parents can be involved in their babies' daily care, as well as how NICU staff can best support them.

Another paper from the Journal of Perinatology, "NICU Discharge Planning and Beyond: Recommendations for Parent Psychosocial Support," discusses the importance of parent involvement in their baby's care in preparation for discharge from the NICU. Education and emotional support prepare parents to care for their baby and reduce feelings of stress, fear, and anxiety. The authors also discuss the importance of follow-up care and support for families after they leave the hospital. Learning how to advocate for your child in the unfamiliar world of the NICU can be extremely challenging, but research shows that parent involvement in their baby's care is incredibly important to family well-being. So don't feel badly about asking questions! Ask for help, and talk to your baby's medical team and social worker about follow up care.

These are just a few of the studies I found on PubMed, which is a free search engine that provides public access to medical research papers. It is a wonderful tool that anyone can use to find reliable information on issues related to premature birth. The more you know, the more prepared you will be to participate in your child's care. If you have questions about how your hospital incorporates family-centered care practices, talk to your baby's medical team. If you'd like to be more involved in a specific way, ask to be included. And remember, anything you're able to do to care for your baby, even just sitting next to the isolette, makes your baby and your family stronger.