Unique role-playing event allows staff to experience life as a ‘preemie’

Imagine what it’s like to be a three pound premature baby; instead of the security and comfort of the womb, you suddenly find yourself in Sunnybrook’s neonatal intensive care unit. There are machines beeping and you’re being moved around and prodded.

For health-care professionals who attended the Preemie for a Day event on Friday, November 9th, this scenario became a reality. Preemie for a Day is an interactive, multi-sensory training program that involves participants personally experiencing care from a premature infant’s point of view. With a focus on developmentally supportive care, participants play the role of the infants, including being positioned, fed and handled.

“Premature babies have very special needs, and loud noises and voices may be stressful,” explains Sharyn Gibbins, Nurse Practitioner at Sunnybrook and Preemie for a Day instructor. “Experiencing firsthand what it’s like for a preemie is a powerful learning tool for the caregivers. It helps to reinforce the importance of developmentally-friendly practices to help babies and their parents through a very difficult time.”

For Dr. Martin Skidmore, a Sunnybrook neonatologist who role-played a premature infant being positioned and wrapped, the exercise was a fun way to learn about a serious issue. “You can’t put into words what we’re doing to these premature babies, you have to experience it,” says Dr. Skidmore.

Attended by registered nurses, respiratory therapists and neonatologists, the program was originally developed by Children’s Medical Ventures. Kay Johnson, a developmental nurse from Philadelphia, is the program’s lead instructor and says that the impact of negative early experiences with things like feeding can be lasting. “Some children don’t even want their faces touched, don’t want a bottle near them, can’t stand the sight of food. So our job is to better understand how we can ensure that their outcomes are the best they can possibly be.”

Research in the United States has shown that the Preemie for a Day program produces developmentally sound outcomes and better medical outcomes for premature babies. Physicians, nurses and other staff who have participated in this class have noticed many benefits for their patients, including a decrease in the number of ventilator days needed, a reduction in infants’ complications, an improvement in the infants’ neuron-developmental outcomes during the first 18 months of life and shorter lengths of stay.

“Babies don’t have a choice about having blood drawn or the other procedures that we do, but we can offer developmentally friendly practices to help both infants and their parents better cope within the hospital and after they’re discharged,” adds Sharyn Gibbins.