Inside the NICU

10 things I learned at the 25th Annual Gravens Conference

I have one of the best jobs in the world. As Parent Coordinator I get to spend my time with my favourite people, who are (in no particular order) babies, families, nurses, other NICU staff, and neonatologists. Then once in a while I get to do something like go to the Gravens Conference, which draws examples of these types from all over the world. To see a room full of people, all dedicated to making things better for babies and for families, is a transformative experience.I want to try to share a little bit of this experience with you.

It’s hard to name only 10 things, since every session was packed with information, but this is a blog post and not a thesis, so I’ve limited myself.

1. When you see people like Stan Graven, Mavis Graven, Joy Browne, Heidelise Als, Bev Johnson and Carole Kenner standing at the front of the room, and you realize these are some of the titans of neonatology, and they are directly responsible for so much of what kept your baby and your family going, you may get kind of emotional. They will be very nice about it.

2. Kangaroo care is not only important for brain development, breast milk production and parent-infant bonding. It also is an incredibly effective form of pain relief for babies.Celeste Johnston did a fabulous presentation that included two videos. The first showed a little baby getting a heel stick in his incubator. Oh, his little face! The second showed him getting a heel stick while being held by his mom. Barely a flicker.

3. I hope I don’t sound terribly sexist, but within the realm of neonatology, women tend to be good dancers, while men are … ummm … interesting dancers. Of course this doesn’t apply to the male representative in our group. He rocked.

4. The March of Dimes is a truly mind-blowingly great organization. They are changing the world. The family support specialists, who are mostly but not all parents of preemies, are carrying out transformative projects all over the US. I think one of the next big waves in neonatology is going to come from this direction, like family-driven research, family-centred design and/or family-driven advocacy/lobbying.

5.Dads are very much a research focus for neonatalogy. When dads hold babies it’s not just good for the babies. It also helps fathers develop their own understanding of themselves as fathers and it may protect them from developing severe depression.

6. The grouper sandwich at Columbia Restaurant is a fantastic sandwich, and it’s really grouper and not some fake fish.

7. Even though we all want the NICU experience to have a definite end (preferably when we leave the NICU with our babies), it’s not over when families leave the hospital. Our own Dr. Paige Church gave a spectacular presentation which made it very clear that the needs of the premature population are not well understood by the general population, and if we want our kids to thrive we need to make sure our schools and institutions understand their needs.

8. A direct quote from one of the last presentations on depression by Dr Marlin Mills. I thought this was such a good way to describe when someone should ask for help. “It’s natural and normal to have off days. It’s not natural and normal to have off months.” So if you’re finding your sadness is unrelieved by flashes of feeling better, ask for help. It is *always* good to ask for help.

9. Silke Mader, an inspiring mom who started the European Foundation for the Care of Newborn Infants, shared a million great ideas in her presentation. One that I think we should steal (sorry – “borrow”) is to celebrate World Prematurity Day by hanging up little socks in a line. 9 would be regular baby size and the 10th a tiny preemie one.It’s a great visual representation of the current global rate of premature birth.

10. This last one is for parents. Please take some comfort in knowing that some of the finest brains (and hearts) in the world are dedicating their whole lives to you and your children. They care about you and your family and they care about what you have to say. If you want to help to make things better, there is a place for you at the table, and you will have a great time sitting there.

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Kate Robson