Hamilton pilot program supports region’s youngest, most vulnerable babies

June 27, 2023

Inside a conference room with dimmed lighting at Anna Shaw Children’s Institute, seated rows of health care workers and community volunteers take turns picking up and swaddling dolls the size of a human newborn.

Instructor Kathi Frankel, owner of Bear With Me Family Physical Therapy in Atlanta, explains in detail where to place the babies’ tiny limbs, how to position their own bodies when transferring the child from one surface to another, and how to assist caregivers in handling their little ones in ways that tune in to their natural reflexes and physiological needs.

It’s all part of the 2 Gen Matters Family Integrated Relationships Based Development Care Initiative being piloted at Hamilton Medical Center to improve outcomes for some of the region’s most vulnerable families. 

Babies whose lives begin with a stay in a neonatal intensive care unit – or NICU – often face an uphill battle even after they’re returned to family care. Not only do those children have developmental delays at higher rates than their peers, their parents and other caregivers face greater challenges too.

NICU stays, while often necessary, are hard on families. Mothers experience higher rates of postpartum mood disorders, children are more likely to have developmental delays, and families must cope with the grief and loss that often come from separation so soon after birth. But a collaborative program being piloted at Hamilton Medical Center aims to reduce that stress as much as possible – and give families a better start.

The care initiative aims to improve outcomes by training health care staff on best practices for supporting babies and families during the vulnerable newborn experience and monitoring for additional support needs as those children grow up. Another key component of the program is pulling in community partners and organizations in the best position to support families as their children grow up.

Hamilton Health Care System is piloting the program, which has plans to expand statewide and beyond. Nikki Pasley, clinical nurse manager for Hamilton Medical Center’s NICU, says the facility is continually striving to improve long-term outcomes for babies and foster connection between those babies and their parents.

“We know how vital it is for mom, dad and baby to be together,” Pasley says. “Ensuring that policies, procedures and staff training reflect a family-centered approach is imperative.”

Suzanne Harbin, director of the Early Childhood Initiative of Northwest Georgia, says it’s all part of an effort to address Georgia’s above-average rate for NICU stays and above-average rate for postpartum mood disorders like anxiety and depression. Georgia has one of the highest rates of maternal death and infant mortality of any state in the country. “We must all pull together to collaboratively find solutions for the health of our mothers and their babies,” Harbin says.

“Tremendous innovation and collaboration is happening within our community for our youngest babies and their parents and caregivers,” Harbin says. “Clinicians are learning, families are being reached in innovative ways, and strategic conversations are happening to further this crucial care initiative for our youngest babies.”

The family-centered approach is a huge focus of the program initiative. Health care workers and volunteers who serve as “cuddlers” are attending ongoing training sessions at Dalton’s Anna Shaw Children’s Institute to better understand ways to support families going through a difficult time. ASCI provides services for children with developmental delays.

Participants are also being trained in using language that is sensitive, supportive and encouraging of families during what for many is one of the most difficult and vulnerable times of their lives.

“We know parents are experiencing intense grief and loss (when they are separated from their babies because of a NICU stay), so maybe this bedside support can help them get to the next level,” says Frankel. “We have a lot of power with the words we say.”

Pasley says she and the staff at Hamilton are “beyond excited” to be piloting the FINE Neurodevelopmental Care Initiative. Led by Frankel as well as Emily Rubin, MS, CCC-SLP, Communication Crossroads; and Arianne Weldon, MPH, Georgia Family Connection Partnership, the initiative kicked off in February with plans to continue training through the end of the year.

“Together with our team of excellent nurses, medical providers and ancillary staff, our goal is to be the place families choose to deliver their baby knowing the needs of their baby and their own needs will be our top priority,” Pasley says.

Harbin says when she was initially contacted by state leaders to see if Hamilton Medical Center would be interested in applying for the grant, she didn’t even hesitate.

“Hamilton Medical Center has been a tremendous place to launch this work for NICU babies, their families and their providers,” she says. “The positive experiences families and babies have at Hamilton will impact them for the rest of their lives.”