A study conducted by two Dartmouth researchers reveals an increasing number of normal weight and term babies are being cared for in hospitals’ NICUs across the country calling into question the reasoning behind intensive care for healthy babies. Tracking births from January 2007 through December 2012 the study conducted by Wade Harrison, MPH, and David Goodman, MD, MS, of The Dartmouth Institute for Health Policy and Clinical Practice found a 23 percent increase in NICU stays for normal weight and term babies.
In their paper, Epidemiologic Trends in Neonatal Intensive Care, published this month in JAMA Pediatrics, Harrison and Goodman admit there are no definitive reasons why the increase is steadily occurring, although they do sound the alarm that a pattern was discovered across 18 million live births.
While the best care in NICUs can benefit every newborn, Harrison and Goodman question the efficiency and cost of using intensive care for relatively healthy babies. NICU care is more expensive and having a newborn admitted to the NICU can put unnecessary stress on parents with normal weight or term babies.
“The fact that admissions are increasing for normal or near-normal birth weight babies doesn’t indicate anything about the necessity of those admissions. But it does raise questions worth examining in the future,” Harrison and Goodman note. “Some people might ask how more care could ever be a problem for a baby,” Goodman says. “But a NICU admission has risks and consequences for newborn and their families. There may be opportunities to provide great care in less intensive settings.”
In addition to the stress imposed on parents, newborns can also be subjected to invasive medical tests and procedures. “The first few days are a critical time in a child’s life, and it’s a critical bonding time for the baby and the new parents,” Harrison says. “Spending time in a NICU is not the same as time spent at home or in a birthing pavilion. It’s very stressful for both the infant and the family.”