Skin to skin care or kangaroo care is all the rage and I am the first one to offer my support for it. Questions persist though as to whether from a physiological standpoint, babies are more stable in an isolette in a quiet environment or out in the open on their mother or father’s chests. Bornhorst et al expressed caution in their study Skin-to-skin (kangaroo) care, respiratory control, and thermoregulation. In a surprising finding, babies with an average gestational age of 29 weeks were monitored for a number of physiological parameters and found to have more frequent apnea and higher heart rates than when in an isolette. The study was small though and while there were statistical differences in these parameters they may not have had much clinical significance (1.5 to 2.8 per hour for apnea, bradycardia or desaturation events). Furthermore, does an increase in such events translate into any changes in cerebral oxygenation that might in turn have implications for later development? Tough to say based on a study of this magnitude but it certainly does raise some eyebrows.
What if we could look at cerebral oxygenation?
As you might have guessed, that is exactly what has been done by Lorenz L et al in their recent paper Cerebral oxygenation during skin-to-skin care in preterm infants not receiving respiratory support.The goal of this study was to look at 40 preterm infants without any respiratory distress and determine whether cerebral oxygenation (rStO2)was better in their isolette or in skin to skin care (SSC). They allowed each infant to serve as their own control by have three 90 minute periods each including the first thirty minutes as a washout period. Each infant started their monitoring in the isolette then went to SSC then back to the isolette. The primary outcome the power calculation was based on was the difference in rStO2 between SSC and in the isolette. Secondary measures looked at such outcomes as HR, O2 sat, active and quiet sleep percentages, bradycardic events as lastly periods of cerebral hypoxia or hyperoxia. Normal cerebral oxygenation was defined as being between 55 to 85%.
Perhaps its the start of a trend but again the results were a bit surprising showing a better rStO2 when in the isolette (−1.3 (−2.2 to −0.4)%, p<0.01). Other results are summarized in the table below:
Mean difference in outcomes
Difference in mean
% time in quiet sleep
No differences were seen in bradycardic events, apnea, cerebral hypoexmia or hyperoxemia. The authors found that SSC periods in fact failed the “non-inferiority” testing indicating that from a rStO2 standpoint, babies were more stable when not doing SSC! Taking a closer look though one could argue that even if this is true does it really matter? What is the impact on a growing preterm infant if their cerebral oxygenation is 1.3 percentage points on average lower during SSC or if their HR is 5 beats per minute faster? I can’t help but think that this is an example of statistical significance without clinical significance. Nonetheless, if there isn’t a superiority of these parameters it does leave one asking “should we keep at it?”
Benefits of skin to skin care
Important outcomes such as reductions in mortality and improved breastfeeding rates cannot be ignored or the positive effects on family bonding that ensue. Some will argue though that the impacts on mortality certainly may be relevant in developing countries where resources are scarce but would we see the same benefits in developed nations. The authors did find a difference though in this study that I think benefits developing preterm infants across the board no matter which country you are in. That benefit is that of Quiet Sleep (QS). As preterm infants develop they tend to spend more time in QS compared to active sleep (AS). From Doussard- Roossevelt J, “Quiet sleep consists of periods of quiescence with regular respiration and heart rate, and synchronous EEG patterns. Active sleep consists of periods of movement with irregular respiration and heart rate, and desynchronous EEG patterns.” In the above table one sees that the percentage of time in QS was significantly increased compared to AS when in SSC. This is important as neurodevelopment is thought to advance during periods of QS as preterm infants age.
There may be little difference favouring less oxygen extraction during isolette times but maybe that isn’t such a good thing? Could it be that the small statistical difference in oxygen extraction is because the brain is more active in laying down tracks and making connections? Totally speculative on my part but all that extra quiet sleep has got to be good for something.
To answer the question of this post in the title I think the answer is a resounding yes for the more stable infant. What we don’t know at the moment except from anecdotal reports of babies doing better in SSC when really sick is whether on average critically ill babies will be better off in SSC. I suspect the answer is that some will and some won’t. While we like to keep things simple and have a one size fits all answer for most of our questions in the NICU, this one may not be so simple. For now I think we keep promoting SSC for even our sick patients but need to be honest with ourselves and when a patient just isn’t ready for the handling admit it and try again when more stable. For the more stable patient though I think giving more time for neurons to find other neurons and make new connections is a good thing to pursue!
It is hard to be a Neonatologist who took the path through Pediatrics first and not use a Dr. Seuss quote from time to time. If your unit is anything like ours where you work I imagine you feel as if you are bursting at the seams. As the population grows so do our patient volumes. I often quote the number 10% as being the number of patients we see out of all deliveries each year in our units. When I am asked why our numbers are so high I counter that the answer is simple. For every extra 100 births we get 10 admissions. It is easy though to get lost in the chaos of managing a unit in such busy times and not take a moment to look back and see how far we have come. What did life look like 30 years ago or 25 years ago? In Winnipeg, we are preparing to make a big move into a beautiful new facility in 2018. This will see us unify three units into one which is no easy task but will mean a capacity of 60 beds compared to the 55 operational beds we have at the moment.
In 2017 we are routinely resuscitating infants as young as 23 weeks and now with weights under 500g at times. Whereas in the past anyone under 1000g was considered quite high risk, now the anticipated survival for a 28 week infant at 1000g is at or above 95%. Even in my short career which began in 1998 in terms of Pediatrics and then 2001 in Neonatology our approach in terms of comfort with the smallest infants has eased greatly. What inspired this post though was a series of newspaper clippings from 1986 and 1991 that made me take a moment to look up at the sky and mutter “huh”. When you take a trip down memory lane and read these posts I think you will agree we have come a LONG way and (in truth) in a very short time.
1986 – Opening of the New NICU at Children’s Hospital
This unit was built with 3.5 million dollars. Imagine how far that would go now…
The unit had a capacity of 18 beds but opened with only 12 and a nursing staff of 60 (compare that to 150 now!). They couldn’t open more beds due to the lack of available nurses with sufficient skills.
My favourite comment to provide some perspective was that 5 to 10 years before this time the estimated survival for infants under 1000g was 15%!
Have we ever come a long way in family centred care. Can you imagine having a baby born now at 695g whose family wouldn’t get to hold them till almost 3.5 months of age?! That is what happened in the case described in this article.
1991 – Opening of the new Intermediate Care Nursery
Did you know the old unit had 19 beds (was originally 9 babies) and expanded to 27 at this time?
It cost 3.1 million to build this unit.
The long and the short of it is that yes things are busy and in fact busier than they have ever been. Do not lose sight however wherever your practice is that you are part of a story for the ages. Things that were once thought impossible or miracles are now everyday events and you have been part of it. For those of you who read this post this will likely bring about a lot of nostalgia for you. Thirty years in medicine is not a long time and we have accomplished so much along the way. For those of you who are just starting out, imagine where we will be in 30 years from now. I for one can’t wait to read about it and wonder where we will have gone by then.
Throughout my career one thing has been consistently true. That is that wherever I was working and regardless of the role I have been an educator. I imagine the blog to a great extent is related to my interest in this aspect of my work. In the last few years much has been said about care by parents whether it be a general approach for family centred care or in formalized approaches such as FiCare which has also been formally studied in the research setting. When we speak of family centred care, one thing that I am constantly reminded of is that the focus of all of our efforts must be on the family and the patient. As I said recently to a colleague when discussing what was presented as a difficult discussion with another colleague due to a disagreement about the direction of management, when you put the patient first the discussion really isn’t difficult at all. It’s not about you or a colleagues ego but about the patient and if the management is not up to par then change direction and worry about managing egos later.
What We Know And What They Know
Another aspect that needs to be addressed is the difference in power that we have through knowledge. I am not talking about us exerting authority over families but from the perspective of us having the knowledge from years of experience in the field as to what is significant and what is not in terms of events in the NICU. The evidence for example with respect to neurodevelopmental outcome from apnea and bradycardia should give us reason to be optimistic the majority of the time. While in Edmonton I learned a great deal from one of my colleagues who was the lead author in a paper entitled Early childhood neurodevelopment in very low birth weight infants with predischarge apnea. While frequent apnea may be associated with mild motor impairments in their paper, the predictive value of these predischarge recordings is very limited when you take away those kids without severe IVH. I think about all of the parents we see who have their eyes glued to the monitors while they attend at the bedside and what they must be thinking. To us it is just a matter of time but I wonder for them how agonizing a time it really is! It isn’t just those infants who are nearing discharge and having apnea either as the CAP study at 5 years of age showed no difference in survival without disability in those infants who received caffeine vs those who did not. More frequent events may not be that detrimental after all. I am not suggesting we not treat patients as one never knows where the threshold lies to cause injury but these preemies are certainly made of some tough stuff.
Identifying Stress and Preparing Parents For it
The first step in dealing with this issue is to know it is there. Recognizing this, Melnyk and others performed an educational intervention targeting behaviour of families in their study Reducing premature infants’ length of stay and improving parents’ mental health outcomes with the Creating Opportunities for Parent Empowerment (COPE) neonatal intensive care unit program: a randomized, controlled trial. The group of parents who went through the program had better mental health outcomes compared to the control groups. The issue here and really is at the crux of the goal in writing all of this is that the stress that parents feel may not be overtly present. The squeaky wheel as the saying goes gets the grease and the parents that are demonstrating signs of poor coping are the first to draw the referrals to social work or engage in a deeper conversation with nursing at the bedside. All parents experience stress at least to a certain degree and it is all of our jobs to tease it out. On the other hand employing standardized approaches such as the COPE program for all parents might be another way of helping those who are in need but not clearly wearing a sign on their foreheads that say “help me”.
Don’t Underestimate the Power of Reassurance
So we know that much of what we see on the monitors will not lead to long term harm, transient central cyanosis during feeds will not damage the brain and apnea of prematurity is a distinct entity from SIDS. The parents on the other hand commonly make these links and additionally in case no one has mentioned it to you, those babies with TTN may one day develop asthma and those with hypoglycemia may have diabetes (we know both not to be true but I have been asked about this many times). This is why I believe it is our duty to explain why we are not worried about things that come up in the unit. Saying “don’t worry” or “that is normal preterm behaviour” may not be enough. Ask a parent what it is they are worried about and you may be surprised to find out the links that they have made in their heads, some of which may be valid but some completely false. I am not meaning to trivialize their concerns but rather validate them as real worries. If we have the knowledge and it is power as I said before then shouldn’t we use that power to help reduce their stress?
Engaging Families Can Reap Huge Dividends
The movement towards family centred care and more specifically care by parent will have a dramatic impact on this issue. As more and more centres move to engaging families to be part of rounds and not just listen and then ask questions but to take some degree of control and provide some of the reporting stress will be reduced. It is only logical. The more a family comes to understand what is significant and what is not in terms of reporting concerns the more confident they will be. Moreover, spending more time at the bedside leads to more skin to skin care and with that shorter hospital stays due to better cardiorespiratory stability. We aren’t there yet but we are headed in the right direction. In the meantime, take the time to ask a simple question “what are you worried about” to parents no matter how confident and strong they appear and you may find yourself with an opportunity to harness the power of education you have a make a real difference to a family in need.
I think it is safe to say that this topic stirs up emotions on both sides of the argument of how aggressive to be when it comes to resuscitating some of these infants, particularly those at 22 and 23 weeks. Where I work we have drawn a line at 23 weeks for active resuscitation but there are those that would point out the challenge of creating such a hard-line when the accuracy of dating a pregnancy can be off by anywhere from 5 – 14 days. Having said that, this is what we have decided after much deliberation and before entertaining anything further it is critical to determine how well these infants are doing not just in terms of survival but also in the long run. In the next 6 months our first cohort should be coming up for their 18 month follow ups so this will be an informative time for sure.
Do Days Matter?
This is the subject of a short report out of Australia by Schindler T et al. In this communication they looked at the survival alone for preterm infants in a larger study but broke them down into 3 and four-day periods from 23 to 25 weeks as shown below.
The asterisk over the two bars means that the improvement in survival was statistically significant between being born in the last half of the preceding week and the first half of the next week. In this study in other words days make a difference. A word of caution is needed here though. When you look at the variation in survival in each category one sees that while the means are statistically different the error bars show some overlap with the previous half week. At a population level we are able to say that for the average late 23 week infant survival is expected to be about 30% in this study and about 55% at 24 +0-3 days. What do you say to the individual parent though? I am not suggesting that this information is useless as it serves to provide us with an average estimate of outcome. It also is important I believe in that it suggests that dating on average is fairly accurate. Yes the dates may be off for an individual by 5 – 14 days but overall when you group everyone together when a pregnancy is dated it is reasonably accurate for the population.
Don’t become a slave to the number
The goal of this post is to remind everyone that while these numbers are important for looking at average outcomes they do not provide strict guidance for outcome at the individual level. For an individual, the prenatal history including maternal nutrition, receipt of antenatal steroids, timing of pregnancy dating and weight of the fetus are just some of the factors that may lead us to be more or less optimistic about the chances for a fetus. Any decisions to either pursue or forego treatment should be based on conversations with families taking into account all factors that are pertinent to the decision for that family. Age is just a number as people say and I worry that a graph such as the one above that is certainly interesting may be used by some to sway families one way or another based on whether the clock has turned past 12 AM. At 23 weeks 3 days and 23 hours do we really think that the patient is that much better off than at 24 weeks 4 days and 1 hour?
To many of you the answer is a resounding yes in that it reduces stress. Why is that though? Is it because you have had a personal experience that has been favourable, it is the practice in your unit or it just seems to make sense? It might come as a surprise to you who have followed this blog for some time that I would even ask the question but a social media friend of mine Stefan Johansson who runs 99NICU sent an article my way on this topic. Having participated in the FiCare study I realised that I have a bias in this area but was intrigued by the title of the paper. The study is Parental presence on neonatal intensive care unit clinical bedside rounds: randomised trial and focus group discussion by Abdel-Latif ME et al from New Zealand and was performed due to the lack of any RCTs on the subject specifically in the NICU.
Before I go on though I have to disclose a few biases.
I love parents being on rounds so I can speak with them directly and have them ask me any questions they may have after hearing about their infants condition.
Our unit encourages the practice.
We are rolling out the principles of FiCare after being part of the study which encourages parental presence at the bedside for far more than just rounds.For information on implementing FiCare click here
While this study is the only reported RCT on the subject in the NICU, the FiCare results will be published before long.
What is the problem with having families on rounds?
The detractors would say that sensitive information may be more difficult to discuss out in the open for fear that the family will take offence or be hurt. Another concern may be that teaching will be affected as the attending may not want to discuss certain aspects of care in order to prevent creating fear in the parents or awkwardness in the event that the management overnight was not what they would have done. Lastly, when patient volumes and acuity are high, having parents ask questions on rounds may lead to excessive duration of this process and lead to fatigue and frustration by all members of the team.
So what does this study add?
This particular study enrolled 72 families of which 63 completed the study. The study required 60 families to have enough power to detect the difference in having parents on rounds or not.The design was interesting in that the randomisation was a cross over design in which the following applied. One arm was having parents on rounds and the other without. The unit standard at the time was to not have parents on rounds.
≤30 weeks 1 week in one arm, one week washout period then one week in the other arm
>30 weeks 3 days in one arm, three day washout and then three days in the other arm
The primary outcome was to see if there would be a significant difference in the Parental Stressor Scale.
Surprisingly there was no difference across any domains of measuring parental stress. When we look at questions though pertaining to communication in the NICU we see some striking differences.
The families see many benefits to the model of being on rounds. They appear to have received more information, more contact with the team, contributed more to the planning of the course of their babies care and been able to ask more questions. All of these things would seem to achieve the goals of having parents on rounds.
So why aren’t parents less stressed?
This to me is the most interesting part of this post. The short answer is I am not sure but I have a few ideas.
The study could not be blinded. If the standard of care in the unit was to not have parents on rounds, what kind of conversations happened after rounds? Were staff supportive of the families or were they using language that had a glass is half empty feel to it? Much like I am biased towards having parents on rounds and thanking them for their participation were there any negative comments that may have been unintentional thrown the families way.
Is a little knowledge a dangerous thing? Perhaps as families learn more details about the care of their baby it gives them more things to worry about. Could the increase in knowledge while in some ways being pleasing to the family be offset by the concern that new questions raise.
Was the intervention simply too short to detect a difference? This may have been a very important contributor. This short period of either a week or two leaves the study open to a significant risk that an event in either week could acutely increase stress levels. What if the infant had to go back on a ventilator after failing CPAP, needed to be reloaded with caffeine or developed NEC? With such short intervals one cannot say that while communication was better the parents were not stressed due to something unrelated to communication. In an RCT these should balance out but in such a small study I see this as a significant risk.
So where do we go from here?
I applaud the authors for trying to objectively determine the effect of parental presence on rounds in the NICU. Although I think they did an admirable job I believe the longer time frame of the FiCare study and the cluster randomised strategy using many Canadian centres will prove to be the better model to determine effectiveness. What the study does highlight though in a very positive way is that communication is enhanced by having parents on rounds and to me that is a goal that is well worth the extra time that it may take to get through rounds. Looking at it another way, we as the Neonatologists may need to spend less time discussing matters after rounds as we have taken care of it already. In the end it may be the most efficient model around!