Parents anticipate taking their babies home a few days after giving birth and being the people responsible for every aspect of their care. They brace themselves for the sleepless nights, responding to every cry—feeding, changing, cleaning, holding—it’s all supposed to be from parents.

So when a baby has to go to the NICU, and almost all aspects of their care are taken over by nurses and doctors, it can feel devastating.

“This was not part of my plan.”

Lauren Boyle, RN wrote, “I know you feel helpless. The simple joy of being able to feed, hold, and care for your baby has been taken from you. We will try to involve you in your baby's care as much as we can, but I know it's not the same as being at home. But please believe how important you are. You are a member of the team, just as much as I am. You make a difference in your baby’s life every day.”

A recent study published in The Lancet confirms that this is absolutely the case.

Researchers looked at 1800 babies born earlier than 33 weeks gestation, in 26 NICUs in Australia, New Zealand, and Canada. They wanted to see if NICUS that incorporated family-integrated care—care provided largely by the parents instead of solely by the nurses—impacted the outcomes of the babies and the parents.

Babies who were cared for by their parents in the NICU had significantly higher weight gain and higher rates of breastfeeding. The parents also had lower levels of stress and anxiety. They did not find any differences in length of hospital stay or fatalities.

Dr. Karel O’Brien of Mount Sinai Hospital in Toronto, the study’s lead author, told CTV News, “We’ve really completely changed our attitudes to parents in the NICU. Parents are seen now as being an essential part of our medical care team,”

The way a parent’s care affect their baby’s development has received more and more attention. We’ve learned that “premature babies that [receive] a lot of gentle touch from their parents and caregivers responded much more to touch moving forward. And this translates into health benefits for the babies as they grow—less risk for infection, less crying and better breathing, to name a few.”

Caring for our babies also helps parents feel better: “A 2001 study published in MCN: The American Journal of Maternal/Child Nursing found that skin-to-skin contact, also known as kangaroo care, can minimize and even help prevent postpartum depression, which affects about 600,000 women each year in the United States.”

More and more hospitals around the world recognize this benefit and are starting to implement family-integrated care systems.

St. James's University Hospital in Leeds, UK has parents take temperature, insert nasal gastric feeding tubes, and more. One mother told BBC News, “While I'm here, I pretty much do everything that a normal mum would do. Everything, from feeding to medicine, cleaning, bathing. Being around it and watching it has made me more confident when I've come to actually doing it."

Note: this video shows medical procedures on a premature baby.

The BC Children's Hospital and BC Women's Hospitals in Vancouver has a NICU that offers single rooms where mothers can stay with their babies while receiving their routine postpartum care.

It seems like this is a growing trend, and we can only hope it expands to more and more hospitals. Having a baby in the NICU will never be easy, but family minded care models are a huge step in improving the start of so many families’ journeys.