Privacy for preemies: R.I. hospital at forefront of transforming neonatal intensive-care wards

PROVIDENCE — Jessica Blanchette delivered her son, Benjamin, six weeks early.

He weighed 4 pounds, 14 ounces and benefited from all the latest technology for neonatal intensive care.

But that wasn’t enough.

His mother knew. So the day after he was born, she picked up her tiny newborn and lay him on her bare chest.

This simple, primal act of skin-to-skin contact — where the infant, wearing only a diaper, nestles inside a parent’s shirt or other covering for as many hours a day as possible — is known as kangaroo care. Named after the marsupials that care for their young in their pouches, this skin-to-skin contact is especially important for premature infants because it helps stabilize their heart and respiratory rates, improve oxygen delivery and increase weight gain.

Now, a new study by researchers at the Brown Center for the Study of Children at Risk at the Brown Alpert Medical School and Women and Infants Hospital found that this method of skin-to-skin care proved the most important factor in jump-starting the early maternal caretaking that improves babies’ long-term neurobehavioral development.

ILLUSTRATION: A state-of-the-art NICU

Premature babies whose parents, usually the mother, provided more of this skin-to-skin care were among those who scored highest on cognitive and language tests and showed the fewest symptoms of autism spectrum disorders during their first 18 months of life, according to a research study led by Barry M. Lester, director of the Brown center. The study has been published in the current issue of The Journal of Pediatrics.

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