University of Chicago Comer Children's Hospital launches March of Dimes support project for families of premature infants

June 22, 2005

The University of Chicago Comer Children's Hospital is the first pediatric facility in Illinois chosen by the March of Dimes to begin its Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU) Family Support Project. The three-year program addresses the needs of families of premature or critically ill newborns throughout their hospital stay, during the transition from NICU to home, and in the event of a child's death.

The support project is under way at 23 hospitals around the United States. By 2007, the March of Dimes will establish the program in 50 or more Level-III NICUs across the country.

"Seeing your baby in the neonatal intensive care unit can be an overwhelming experience for parents," said Cathy Gray, perinatal network administrator at the Hospitals and a nine-year volunteer at the March of Dimes. "The program aims to make that experience less traumatic for parents and will complement the hospital's resources already available to our NICU families."

NICU Family Support Projects are tailored to meet each participating hospital's needs, because patient demographics differ among NICUs, and hospitals already have support programs in place to help families.

A part-time March of Dimes NICU family support specialist at each site works with an advisory committee comprised of parents of children who have "graduated" from the NICU, as well as hospital staff, to select activities and services that might help current NICU families. These customized services, which encourage the family's involvement, could include: support for siblings and extended family; photography and crafting scrapbooks; assisting Spanish-speaking families; and antepartum support and preparation.

Each NICU family also will receive the March of Dimes Parent Care Kit, which includes a guide that introduces parents to the staff, equipment, procedures, and conditions they may encounter while their baby is in the NICU. The kits, which are available in Spanish, include a keepsake journal for parents to chart their baby's milestones, and information about how to parent one's baby while in the NICU.

Minerva Esperanza, the NICU family support specialist at Chicago Comer Children's Hospital, has been interviewing and meeting with staff and graduate NICU families to customize the hospital's program.

"We especially want to strengthen the transition-to-home program," Esperanza said. "Families prepare to take their infant home shortly before the baby's discharge date rather than at the beginning of their hospital stay. Parents often feel overwhelmed, suggesting that the training is too fast.

"So, we hope that by focusing on transition education, we'll help parents feel more comfortable and secure when it's time to take their baby home," she said.

In 2002, one in eight babies in Illinois was born preterm (before the 37th week of pregnancy), according to the March of Dimes. Between 1992 and 2002, the rate of infants born preterm in Illinois increased nearly 7 percent.

The new support project is a component of the March of Dimes Prematurity Campaign, a $75 million effort to address the growing problem of premature birth, which is the leading cause of newborn death in the United States. The causes of nearly half of all premature births are unknown, leaving all families at risk.

About the University of Chicago Comer Children's Hospital

The University of Chicago Comer Children's Hospital, designed to be at the forefront of pediatric care, provides a state-of-the-art, family-focused environment for all in-patient pediatric services. It includes two 30-bed medical/surgical units, predominantly private rooms, and a two-story, 30-bed pediatric intensive care unit. The neonatal intensive care unit, one of the largest in the Midwest, has 65 beds. The new hospital also has six surgical suites, with operating rooms, 21 preoperative areas, and recovery rooms designed to suit the specific needs of pediatric and newborn surgical patients.

About the March of Dimes

The March of Dimes is a national voluntary health agency whose mission is to improve the health of babies by preventing birth defects and infant mortality. Founded in 1938, the March of Dimes funds programs of research, community services, education, and advocacy to save babies and in 2003 launched a campaign to address the increasing rate of premature birth.

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