A Brighter Future for Our Smallest Babies

October 19, 2023 Swedish Women's Health Team


In this article:

  • Every year, about 380,000 babies are born prematurely (before 37 weeks).

  • Advances in care are leading to better outcomes among preterm babies.

  • Extremely preterm babies (born before 28 weeks) face a higher risk of complications and serious health issues.

  • The new Small Baby Unit at Swedish First Hill focuses on delivering evidence-based, standardized care for the smallest and most vulnerable babies.

The NICU care team at Swedish First Hill is ready to welcome some of the smallest and earliest premature infants into the Small Baby Unit. The new unit has its own special location within the walls of the hospital’s Level IV NICU, which ensures lower lighting and even more quiet surroundings.

Swedish caregivers have long provided these babies and their families with world-class care.  But this new unit offers a standardized and specialized approach to caring for extremely low birth weight premature babies and those born before 30 weeks.

“The Small Baby Unit is not a separate location; it’s more of a philosophy of care,” explains Amy Dugan, RN, NICU nurse manager at Swedish First Hill. “We’ve bundled together the best care practices that a NICU would prescribe for an extremely low birthweight baby. These practices pay special attention to everything from developmental issues to how we deliver medical care.”

Delivering next-level care

When babies are born prematurely, they need to do more than just gain weight. Their lungs, brains, and many other organs are still developing. They have trouble sustaining a strong heartbeat and oxygen level. They are unable to regulate their own body temperature.

The to-do list to care for these preterm babies is seemingly endless – and overwhelming for parents. Those concerns and challenges become even more serious for babies born before 30 weeks. They require deeply specialized and skilled care to help maintain basic body functions, such as breathing, eating, and digesting food.

The Small Baby Unit at Swedish allows care teams to provide the specialized care these babies need, including:

  • A quiet, dark environment to promote neurological development similar to what a baby experiences in the womb
  • Guidelines on when and how babies are touched to avoid overstimulation, which can lead to higher heart rates and dropping oxygen saturation
  • Respiratory care guidelines to promote lung function and reduce the risk of injury
  • Encouraging family involvement in care, including skin-to-skin care, feeding and diaper changes to promote positive health effects for baby

Babies will “graduate” from the Small Baby Unit and into the NICU when they’ve reached specific milestones outlined by their care team.

Research indicates that this approach is effective. At Nationwide Children’s Hospital in Columbus, Ohio, implementing a Small Baby Unit led to a reduced mortality rate, a reduced length of stay in the NICU, and a reduced risk of developing bronchopulmonary dysplasia (BPD) and brain bleeding.

Change led by a passionate, caring team

Discussions about bringing a Small Baby Unit to Swedish First Hill began in earnest in last fall. A committee of nurses, led by Deb Bender, an acute care nurse practitioner in the NICU, reviewed best practices and recommendations from the Vermont Oxford Network (VON) on the benefits of establishing a small baby unit. From there, an entire team spearheaded by Deb and Shrena Patel, MD, neonatologist, began to brainstorm and develop what a small baby unit at Swedish First Hill would look like.

“Our entire care team is excited about the new unit as it allows us to deliver best practice care to our most vulnerable babies,” shares Amy.

“They are specially trained – some have received as many as 43 hours of education and training about caring for preterm infants in the small baby unit. Not only will this new approach to care help the babies and our families, but it also supports our care teams. Everyone will have a clearly outlined roadmap that specifies the care our babies will receive at every step of the way.”

So far, there are 60 nurses who have been trained to provide care in the Small Baby Unit – 30 nurses on the day shift and 30 on the night shift. There are also 10 Small Baby Unit Champions, nurses who received additional training. These Champions will help train the other nurses and share best practices for the unit.

“Our nurses, respiratory therapists, doctors – everyone – are very passionate about bringing this care to our babies and families. We are very excited to have the Small Baby Unit as part of our NICU,” Amy finishes.

Learn more and find a provider

Learn more about pregnancy and childbirth care available at Swedish. Whether you require an in-person visit or want to consult with a provider virtually, you have options.

With Swedish Virtual Care, you can connect face-to-face with a nurse practitioner who can review your symptoms, provide instruction and follow up as needed. To find a provider, try searching our provider directory.

Join our Patient and Family Advisory Council.

Related resources

Baby 'graduates' home after spending 5 months in the NICU | KOMO 

Do you know how a midwife can help you?

TeamBirth initiative launches at Swedish First Hill

Meet the 2022 Swedish Doula Diversity Scholarship recipients

This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your health care professional’s instructions.

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About the Author

Whether you are seeking gynecological advice, need help navigating your way through the menopause stage of life or researching a recent breast cancer diagnosis, the Swedish Women's Health Team is committed to helping women find the information they need to live happy and healthy lives.

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