A Gentler Beginning...



Sanford’s Boekelheide NICU in Sioux Falls is one of the few NICUs in the United States that uses the new single-family room design, and Dr. Dennis Stevens, a neonatologist at Sanford Health Sioux Falls for 30 years, is one of the leading researchers on how NICU environments affect babies and parents.

Pioneering NICU Research for Babies Everywhere

In the early 1980s, Dr. Stevens and Dr. Stanley Graven worked together to create the first NICU at Sanford. Dr. Graven moved to another state and became one of the nation’s leading researchers on the developmental effect of the NICU environments on babies.

“I followed his research and when it came time to build a new NICU here at Sanford, we chose the single-family unit design,” says Stevens. “We’ve since spent several years here at Sanford compiling substantial data on sound levels and lighting. We present each year at Graven’s national meetings and are very excited about the research we’re doing.”

Several Aspects to Consider

“The first thing we looked at was safety. Was it as safe for these babies to be in separate rooms as in a large open one? We compared 1600 babies admitted to the open bay and 1600 babies admitted to the single-units and found that there was no significant difference in terms of adverse outcomes. So, yes, the single-rooms are just as safe for the babies,” says Dr. Stevens. “What we have achieved here in the last eight years at Sanford really puts us in a position where we’ve done very good preliminary research in the area of the NICU environment. It places us in an excellent position to look forward at additional research with regard to developmental interventions and therapies that are going to impact a baby’s long-term development,” says Dr. Stevens. “And we can also conduct research that can enhance the parent’s interaction with baby in the NICU.”

New Research

On the horizon is a plan to expand the research to study the biochemical changes in babies and parents in the single-family rooms. “We want to see if by enhancing the amount of parent-baby interaction, we can enhance biochemical changes in the baby that are positive for development,” says Dr. Stevens. “There’s a body of research out there that shows that babies do have biochemical changes when they are in physical contact with their parents. We want to study that in combination with how controlling other conditions in the single-family rooms will affect their development.” The bottom line? “It’s all about how the environment can be used to create a more positive healing effect on babies. Every little thing we can do to make these little ones lives better is worth years of study,” says Dr. Stevens.

To Be a Family

For Darrell and Kelly Erb of Tyler, Minnesota, they’ve seen the difference first hand. Each of their three children spent time in the NICU due to preterm births. Their first, Lydia, was born five years ago and spent more than two months in the NICU. She started with one of the first babies placed in the then newly-opened single-units. “The biggest difference for us was privacy. To do kangaroo care, nursing – and to be able to shut the door and just be our own family. That was huge,” says Kelly Erb. The Erb’s son, Everett, 22 months, and daughter Eva, 2 months, also spent time in the new NICU. All three are healthy today. “As a critical care coordinator in the NICU, I see families being able to be with their babies and not feel as if they’re under a microscope,” says Carol Helseth, RN and research associate to Dr. Stevens. The Erbs agree. “The new NICU is so much quieter. You don’t hear the other babies’ alarms going off; you feel that you are more in control. The nurses really helped us feel like we were the caregivers,” says Kelly. “At the same time we knew our children were getting the medical care they needed during that critical time.”

Posted Date: August 2011

A Gentler Beginning...

Dr. Dennis Stevens is leading national research on the effect of light, sound and privacy on critically ill babies in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit. Learn what he’s discovered.

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