When a baby is born prematurely or has a critical illness, the neonatal intensive care unit is usually the place to go. It has the latest equipment and medical experts to give that child the best chance of survival. This hasn’t always been the case though.
Before the 1950s, most premature and low-risk newborns were sent home. They didn’t receive the specialized care they needed, and many of them would not live past their first birthday. the NICU has come a long way since those days, so let’s talk about its evolutions through the years.
In The Beginning…
Early in the 17th century, scientists and doctors began discussing the care of at-risk and premature infants. During the 19th century, various forms of special care were being developed for these infants. After World War II, hospitals started to create specialized units for these children, becoming what we know today as the NICU.
While many medical experts through time were involved in advancing neonatal care, three, in particular, are considered pioneers in the field:
French obstetrician Dr. Etienne Tarnier (1828-1897) is known for his work on the well-being of premature infants. He came up with the idea of using a heated isolette to help premature babies stay warm and grow. He was inspired by the French farmers who used similar equipment to hatch chicken eggs.
Dr. Pierre-Courcy Budin (1846-1907) was another French obstetrician that devoted his career to improving the care of at-risk infants. He helped educate mothers about proper hygiene and nutrition. He also advocated for the use of gavage, which is a feeding tube that can be inserted into the stomach.
Although it’s not exactly clear if he had any medical training, Martin Arthur Couney (1869-1950) became known as the incubator doctor after he studied under Dr. Budin in Paris. He learned about the importance of using incubators for premature infants.
He became known for displaying live infants inside incubators at various events, such as fairs and expositions. Through his work, he was able to raise awareness about the importance of using incubators for premature infants.
The Rise of the NICU
The increasing number of studies that discovered the importance of humidity and heat in the survival rates of at-risk infants prompted more hospitals to create special care units for premature newborns. One of the first innovations to be used was the Hess incubator, which was invented by Dr. Julius Hess at Chicago’s Reese Hospital.
Louis Gluck, a doctor from the US, was another pioneer in the field of neonatal medicine. His research highlighted the risks of infection in premature babies.
He learned that poor hand hygiene could lead to infections among the babies in the special care unit. He then came up with a series of protocols that were designed to improve the hygiene of premature infants, as well as how we approached the design of these special care units. This led to what we know as the first American NICU unit opening at Yale New Haven Hospital in October 1960.
Getting To Today
Jacqueline Kennedy, wife of President John F. Kennedy, gave birth to a boy in August 1963. Unfortunately, he only lived for a couple of days before dying due to respiratory distress syndrome. This incident became very significant due to the seriousness of the situation and how public it was made, prompting professionals all over the world to take a closer look at how we approach the health challenges of premature infants.
Advancements in medical technology during the 1960s into the 1990s allowed any baby born alive to have a better chance of survival. As a result, multiple births became more common. This also led to more coverage of the care provided to premature babies.
During the 1990s, the number of hospitals that provide intensive care for premature infants grew. These facilities were equipped with highly trained medical teams that were able to respond to the needs of these kids.
Today, the care and treatment of premature and at-risk infants continues to improve due to the advancements in technology and the dedicated staff members of the hospitals that provide these services. It is truly amazing to see how far medical science has come in the field of neonatal medicine.