11/17/2013 15:17 EST | Updated 01/23/2014 18:58 EST

Premature babies helped by mom's touch at Mount Sinai

Toronto's CN Tower will glow purple tonight to mark World Prematurity Day, as a promising new Toronto hospital program aims to fast-track infants to health using those who know best — their own parents.

At Toronto's Mount Sinai Hospital, the new Family Integrated Care Program is believed to be the first of its kind in North America. While nurses traditionally provided primary care for premature babies in neonatal intensive care units, the new program, which launched this year, empowers parents to help the hospital's tiniest patients get better.

It's a new way of thinking about neonatal care that relies less on machines and sterile environments, and more on close, tender contact.

"The mother's touch, the mother's voice, the mother's presence even in alleviating pain of the baby — all those things are important for the baby's long-term outcome," said Dr. Karel O'Brien, a neonatologist with Mount Sinai.

"In our pilot study babies gain weight better when the mother is present."

Remarkable improvements

Amid research indicating that skin-to-skin contact with a parent can be tremendously important for a baby's development, the results — weight improvements, decreases in infections, improvements in breast feeding — have encouraged doctors.

"What science is actually telling us now is how important it is to have the parents in the babies' care," O'Brien said.

The intimate engagement is a far cry from the way some neonatal centres operate, with babies kept in incubators on their own. Parents would be asked not to touch them because it could disturb their sleep.

But a new approach to Mount Sinai's neo-natal unit is more like a partnership between medical professionals and parents, said new mother Kristen Schulze.

"I have never felt once like I was a level below," said Schulze, whose newborn twins were born 12 weeks early.

'Prepared to be a mom'

The program tries to get parents involved as early as possible in their children's lives.

All the while, new moms and dads get the opportunity to bolster their parenting skills and their confidence.

"I actually feel that when I go home I'll be really well prepared to be a mom at home," Schulze said.

"We can't really teach mothers and babies how to breast-feed unless we have the mothers present," O'Brien said.

One in 10 babies is born too early, according to the World Health Organization.

Mount Sinai Hospital's neo-natal intensive care unit is the largest unit of its kind in the Greater Toronto Area and one of the largest in Canada, admitting more than 1,000 premature babies a year.