Too little noise is bad for newborns in intensive care

Ambient sound heard during stays in the NICU, where this baby is, may help newborns' brains mature.

Official U.S. Navy Page/FLICKR

Neonatal intensive care units are crammed full of life-saving equipment and people. The technology that fills these bustling hubs is responsible for saving the lives of fragile young babies. That technology is also responsible for quite a bit of noise. In the NICU, monitors beep, incubators whir and nurses, doctors and family members talk. This racket isn’t just annoying: NICU noise often exceeds acceptable levels set by the American Academy of Pediatrics, a 2009 analysis found.  

To dampen the din, many hospitals are shifting away from open wards to private rooms for preemies. Sounds like a no-brainer, right? Fragile babies get their own sanctuaries where they can recover and grow in peace. But in a surprising twist, a new study finds that this peace and quiet may actually be  bad for some babies. 

Well aware of the noise problem in the NICU ward, Roberta Pineda of Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis and colleagues went into their study of 136 preterm babies expecting to see benefits in babies who stayed in private rooms. Instead, the researchers found the exact opposite.

By the time they left the hospital, babies who stayed in private rooms had less mature brains than those who stayed in an open ward. And two years later, babies who had stayed in private rooms performed worse on language tests. The results were not what the team expected. “It was extremely surprising,” Pineda told me.

The researchers believe that the noise abatement effort made things too quiet for these babies. As distressing data from Romanian orphanages highlights, babies need stimulation to thrive. Children who grew up essentially staring at white walls with little contact from caregivers develop serious brain and behavioral problems, heartbreaking results from the Bucharest Early Intervention Project show. Hearing language early in life, even before birth, might be a crucial step in learning to talk later. And babies tucked away in private rooms might be missing out on some good stimulation.

The study took place at the urban St. Louis Children’s Hospital. The parents of these 136 babies visited their babies for an average of 19 hours a week, which means that many of these babies spent a lot of time alone. Babies in private rooms might do just as well as — or better than —babies in open wards if parents were around more to talk, sing and snuggle.

Since the study came out, NICU hospital architects and administrators have been in touch with Pineda to hear more about her findings. But without more detailed studies, we still don’t know the best ways to nurture and assist these early arrivals. 

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