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Deegan Charles is Janine Charles’ second premature baby. Janine was in and out of the hospital for nearly a month as her baby was cared for by nurses and doctors, around the clock. Preemies can be susceptible to jaundice, infections, respiratory, feeding, and behavioral problems. A new research project is being spearheaded by Karen Benzies, PhD and Abhay Lodha, MD to help families leave the hospital sooner with healthier premature infants.

 “You have a primary health provider for your pregnancy, and then all these worst-case scenarios are thrown at you,” says Janine. “He was perfectly healthy, he was just early, and just small; he didn’t need extensive care. The hardest part for our families when we were discharged; it was ‘pack up your stuff and go home and leave your baby behind.’ When I got home, it was—nothing has changed but everything has changed. It was not what I expected having a baby to be like. I don’t think it’s fair to the baby or yourself to just leave the baby in the hands of the hospital and think, ‘I’ll take care of the baby when I get home.’ If you’re able to work side by side and be there through the process, you feel a lot less isolated. Long-term, it’s better for everybody if parents are hands-on.”

One of the researchers, Karen Benzies, says, “We are thoughtfully bringing families into the care of their infants from the time the infant is admitted to our NICU to the time that the infant is discharged. We know from brain and biological development that early parent-infant interaction are critically important to the child’s development.”

One in twelve babies is born preterm in Alberta, Canada. Parents must leave their preterm babies in the hospital to fully develop and become healthy enough to take home. Drs. Benzies and Lodha hope to change that model. They have a plan called Family Integrated Care (FICare).  FICare proposes a new way to integrate the family into the care of their preterm baby. With the guidance of nurses, family members are integrated into the health care team and provide routine care, such as holding and changing their baby.

The team is hoping to show that babies looked after in this way will be discharged from the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU) in less time, and that the families will be better equipped to look after their babies. “Currently, the length of stay for a preterm baby in a level II NICU is 16 days,” says Benzies. “We’re hoping to reduce that number by at least ten per cent. We want parents to feel both confident and competent in the care of their preterm babies when they go home.”

“Family-integrated care empowers the parents to improve their knowledge, skills and confidence in taking care of a premature infant,” says Dr. Lodha.  “Parents are often under stress and afraid to take their babies home because they aren’t involved from the start with the baby’s care. Our study will build that skill and confidence by involving the parents early on with our experienced and well-trained clinicians.”

“Innovation in health care often comes from research driven by people working within the health system. It is needs-driven and delivers benefits for caregivers, patients, and parents,” says Dr. Pamela Valentine, AIHS CEO (Interim). “The research that Drs. Benzies and Lodha are undertaking promises to lead to healthier babies, resulting in happier, healthier families; and, that’s good for all Albertans.”

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