Hearing management

Updated 10 February 2017

Preemies bombarded with noise in first weeks of life

Noisy hospitals may be too overwhelming for premature babies, but private rooms may not be the solution either, a new study suggests.

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Hospitals are noisy – maybe too noisy for the tiniest patients, a new study suggests.

Noise from equipment

Researchers found that premature infants in neonatal intensive care units (NICUs) are exposed to potentially harmful noise levels – sometimes twice the maximum levels recommended by a leading group of US paediatricians.

"Often the noise we measured was coming from medical equipment that is essential to the baby's survival. And this type of equipment is used in NICU units around the world," said study first author Bobbi Pineda. She's an assistant professor of occupational therapy and of paediatrics at Washington University in St. Louis.

On the other hand, preemies in private rooms may miss out on beneficial sounds, such as language and music, that boost early learning, the study found.

The researchers placed sound monitoring devices at the bedsides of 58 premature infants in the NICU at St. Louis Children's Hospital. Twenty-five of the babies were in private rooms.

The researchers found that the average noise level was nearly 59 decibels, with peaks of nearly 87 decibels.

No 'beneficial' sounds

The American Academy of Paediatrics recommends levels no higher than 45 decibels, but that's difficult to achieve in a neonatal intensive care unit, explained Pineda.

The study also found that preemies in private rooms, which are increasingly common in NICUs, have much longer periods of silence than those in ward settings. Private rooms can be too quiet in terms of beneficial sounds, especially if parents can't visit their infants, the researchers said.

"We know that some exposure to sound – even among preemies – can be beneficial," Pineda said. "But sounds don't occur alone. When parents talk to their newborns, they often also hold and caress their babies – all things that help promote healthy development."

Other types of stimulation

A 2013 article on Health24 explores the possibility that singing or playing womb-like sounds in the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) may help slow the heart rate and improve sleep and eating patterns of premature babies. 

Very preterm babies often spend several weeks in neonatal intensive care units. Previous research by Pineda's team found that babies in private rooms in the NCIU had poorer language development at age 2 than babies in open hospital wards.

Pineda and her colleagues have started a study to determine which sounds and other types of stimulation might benefit premature babies in their first few weeks of life.

The study results were published in the Journal of Paediatrics.

Read More: 

Breast milk protein may reduce hospital infections in preemies

Premature babies struggle in life

Parents need to talk to preemies in neonatal unit

 

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Hearing Expert

AuD degree obtained in 2013 at AT Still University Health Science Depart-ment, Arizona. Masters in Communication Pathology at the University of Pretoria, 2003. Remedial Teaching Diploma at Rand University, 1996. Degree in Speech-Language Pathology and Audiology at the University of Pretoria, 1993. Owner of a private practice in Pretoria since 1999. Educating the community regarding early identification of hearing problems and screening of new-borns. Providing assistance and services at retirement homes. Part-time lecturer at the University of Pretoria and the University of Limpopo. External examiner at the University of Pretoria and the University of Limpopo. Presenter at conferences and seminars.

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