COLUMBIA— The last project Molly Myers worked on before leaving her job at Women's and Children's Hospital was a video service that would allow parents to see their newborn babies staying in the neonatal intensive care unit. Pregnant with twins at the time, Myers hadn't expected to be one of the first to use the program.
Called the Telehealth Love and Care service, it allows parents to see and talk to their babies even if they can't get to the NICU.
Jennifer Hanford and her twin, Sarah Cammack, were born in Women's and Children's Hospital in 1984 and spent almost three months in the NICU. Both of their parents were nurses in the NICU. And now, both sisters work there, too.
"It's kind of like Skype," said John Pardalos, a neonatologist and medical director of the NICU at the Children's Hospital.
Its simplicity is deceptive, however, because it fills two important needs: It allows mothers who give birth at University Hospital but go home before their babies to see and talk to their babies if they can't get to the hospital. And it allows mothers who give birth at about a dozen other hospitals in mid-Missouri to recover in the hospitals where they gave birth while their babies are transported to Columbia for the special care they need.
"That was one of the goals: Let the moms stay where they need the care," Pardalos said. "Before this service was available, moms would force their (obstetrician) to discharge them from the hospital so they could go see their baby."
Myers went into labor nine weeks early, and her twin daughters, Suzi and Layla, were born Nov. 21, 2012. They spent 55 days in the hospital's NICU. During that time, Myers and her husband, Danny Myers, split their time between their son, Will, and the NICU.
"Not being able to visit my girls was awful," Myers said. "At the time, (my son) was 21 months. I felt for 55 days of our life we had a divided household."
Although the Myerses live in Columbia, Molly Myers twice found herself unable to visit her daughters: once when she developed a respiratory infection and again when her son was sick.
"The first time I was kept out of the NICU, it was four days after I delivered them," Myers said. "We still didn't know what was going on with them, so especially during that time, I utilized (Telehealth Love and Care) to talk to the doctors and ask about everything that was going on."
Danny Myers, who manages the program for the hospital, said they are working to create the service in more hospitals around mid-Missouri so that when a baby is transferred to the NICU, "mom can see her baby from there," he said.
That interaction between mothers and fathers and babies is important to babies' development and health, research shows, because it builds an important bond that not even the best medical stuff can substitute to provide.
A long way to travel
For parents who live outside of Columbia, a baby in the NICU can mean many long commutes.
"We've had some moms who have other children who can't leave because of school," Pardalos said. "This way they can see this baby while they're still at home taking care of the older kids."
Once parents head home, they can see their babies by calling into the NICU and letting a nurse know they'd like to video chat. The nurse sets up an iPad at the baby's station and lets the parents know which device to log into from a secure website.
"You just have to have an Internet connection and a Web camera," Danny Myers said. Parents can almost always talk to their babies immediately when it's convenient for them. The only times they have to wait are during nurse shift changes and if the baby is having a procedure done.
Myers said the hospital is looking to work with local libraries around mid-Missouri to allow families without Internet access or Web cameras a chance to see their babies.
Children's Hospital NICU nurse Jennifer Hanford said the hospital is the major center for infant intensive care for all of mid-Missouri, so many parents live outside of Columbia.
"Some of the parents are hours away," she said. "They can't always get to the hospital every day, and of course that's everybody's goal."
Helping babies' development
It's more than peace of mind for parents; it's about forming the important bond between parents and babies that begins right after birth, said Kristy vanMarle, an assistant professor of psychology at MU.
"One of the most important things that starts to develop right after birth is attachment," she said. "Babies are engaging in interactive experiences, having people touch them, love them and look at them."
Strong attachment bonds built early in life are indicators of future success. Research shows that babies with good attachment grow into children who are better at regulating and controlling their emotions and behavior, are better at reading others' emotions, and are more competent in school, vanMarle said.
She said the program may help babies in the NICU make up for some of the early attachment experiences they may miss out on while in the hospital.
"New babies that are born full term are in their mom's and dad's arms for much of the day," she said. "Premature babies are lacking in that physical contact. It's not going to replace those kinds of early experiences, but if they're going to be missing out on those opportunities, this is something that will have a positive impact."
Direct parental interactions "are much emotionally richer than they would be otherwise," she said. "It's a good thing to have the parents doing this because the staff at the hospital, as loving as they are, don't love the babies in the same way the parents do."