Who are all these people taking care of my baby?

Who are all these people taking care of my baby?

Neonatology is a team sport if there ever was one. It can be very confusing though to families as they go along their journey. The descriptions below are not meant to be exhaustive and if you are functioning in one of these roles and would like be to add something to your description please chime in! I thought it would be helpful to have a primer of who’s who in the NICU and what do they do exactly? Bear in mind that depending on where you are in the world the person caring for your baby may be different based on staffing models but here is a quick primer to the most common medical staffing positions in Canada. In Neonatology we also tend to like using abbreviations a lot so where there is a common one used I have indicated that in parentheses next to the name.

Attending Neonatologist (NEO)

This is a doctor who has done special training in newborn intensive care. Like me, they will have gone through a residency first in Pediatrics and then done anywhere from 2-3 years of extra training specific to the care of sick newborns. The Neonatologist is commonly seen leading morning rounds and will be the one typically asked to speak with parents when there is something important to share. We may not always be seen front and centre but when not on rounds we are in continual communication with the other “front line medical staff” and stay on top of what is happening with all the babies on the clinical service. You will typically see us in the hospital during day time hours but for the sickest of patients we will come in from home when on call to provide expert guidance on care. Many Neonatologists will have been certified by a national organization such as the Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons of Canada. Not all will however as there are other pathways to taking on this role.

House Medical Officer (HMO)

HMOs are members of the team will have also done a Pediatrics residency. They will have done a Neoatology fellowship as well. These individuals typically will do a mixture of day and night call. You will get to know them over time as they are on the front line and will be seen day and night in the units.

Neonatal Fellow

A fellow has done a Pediatric residency and is now doing specialized training in NICU. In their first year they do an abundance of clinical work as they try and learn the core knowledge of the specialty and obtain expertise in all the common procedures needed in the field. As they move into their second and optional third year they take on additional responsibilities and typically will do a “junior attending” role on a few occasions. in this capacity they act as the Neonatologist and run the NICU. The Neonatologist who is on with them continues to be appraised of the patients in the unit but will not be always on rounds during these weeks. This graduated responsibility is part of the development of the Neonatal fellow.

Pediatric Resident

Residents are training to become a Pediatrician. They do a mandatory number of rotations in NICU which varies depending on the province you are in. As residents they are learning and in many cases will not yet have mastered all the procedural skills in the profession such as intubation and putting in umbilical catheters but they are on their way to obtaining those skills. These are people though who have comprehensive training in all areas of Pediatrics and will be familiar with the ability of the wards to care for your infant if they are transferred potentially to a hospital ward.

Clinical Assistant (CA)

CAs as they are also know will typically not have had a full Pediatrics Residency but in most cases have come VERY close. They function in a capacity very similar to the HMO. Do not be fooled by the lack of a complete residency in the eyes of the local College of Physicians and Surgeons. Many of these individuals are exceptional and would be impossible to distinguish in performance from an HMO.

Nurse Practitioner (NP)

NPs or Neonatal (NNPs) are nurses who have gone through a very advanced program and function as part of the medical team. If you reside in Alberta, NNPs have been the dominant form of housestaff support in Neonatal units for many years. They are meticulous care providers who by virtue of their nursing background have a very holistic approach to care of infants. Their plans always factor in impacts on nursing and in many respects their care is similar to that provided by their MD counterparts. NNPs are capable of performing all the procedural skills as their MD counterparts and it has been a real pleasure to work with them over the years both in Alberta and Manitoba.

Nurse Manager

Nurse managers are responsible for the day to day operations of the NICU. They are also the person to which all of the nurses working in the NICU report. If you have concerns about your experience in the NICU they will eventually filter there way through to this person and sometimes the medical lead for Neonatology. This person can also be of great help sometimes when you don’t feel like you are getting the answers you need as they have a great birds eye view of the unit and are well versed in policies and accepted practices.

Charge Nurse

This position is many respects is the nursing equivalent of the Neonatologist. The Charge nurse will co-lead with the Neonatologist on rounds and is involved in bed management as well. The person in this position is aware of all events that occured overnight and often serves as an advocate for the night staff who may have expressed concerns overnight that need to be dealt with on days.

Bedside Nurse

If you are in the NICU as you read this already you will be very familiar with this position. The bedside nurse is who you will have the most contact with. This person provides direct nursing care to your infant and is often the person you will speak most to during your day. They also wil one day help transition you to home but in the meantime you will bond with many of those you come across. With the sheer amount of time you will be exposed to each other you won’t be able to help bonding.

Registered Respiratory Therapist (RRT)

RRTs as they are known provide a great deal of support to our babies who are having difficulties with breathing. The RRT is the person who will be called when a baby is in need of CPAP or a ventilator and is also the one who takes blood for analysis to check oxygen and carbon dioxide levels amoung other things. They are experts in the airway and breathing and will often be the one seen providing breaths with a bag and mask at the head of the bed if your baby needs support getting in each breath, They also possess the skill to intubate babies so much like the residents, fellows and HMOs you may hear that if your baby needed a breathing tube they were the ones to place it.

Occupational therapist (OT)

These inividuals can perform many tasks but one of the things that has really developed into a strong role is the assessment of feeding. Many ex-preterm infants have challenges after the initial period when they were quite ill, establishing full oral feedings. Many OTs have developed exceptional skills at assessing infant sucking and swallowing. They may recommend pacing strategies to help your baby achieve full oral feedings faster than they would have otherwise.

Physiotherapist (PT)

PTs as they are often called specialize in assessing infant tone and posture. They are very helpful when it comes to helping your infant with their musculoskeletal system. They may provide devices or recommend stretching exercises to help with their limb positioning or muscle tone. Some babies can develop what are called contractures where a limb is quite flexed and they will provide recommendations to help lessen these.


You will already know what a pharmacist is but when it comes to the NICU they provide a very important role. Unlike the adult world where dosing is pretty standard for drugs, in babies the dose is typically measured out per kg of body weight. Moreover, as many studies are not done yet in babies in order to determine proper dosing, the pharmacist helps us determine what drug and at what dose is best to maximize benefit and reduce risk to your infant. Almost all drugs have side effects and by keeping track of the drugs your baby is on they remain vigilant to look for drug interactions and advise us if any are likely.

Registered Dietician (RD)

You would think that nutrition should be an easy thing to manage. Give a baby milk and they will grow. Unfortunately, while this approach works for most babies as they are born term, the preterm infant provides a lot of challenges. Considerations of calories, fat, carbohydrates and protein need to be considered and adjustments made over time. The RDs keep a very close eye on your infant and help advise us about adjustments needed in order to optimize growth and achieve the right balance for weight, length and head circumference. These people are meticulous in their monitoring of nutritional intake and the addition of them to our team has meant more babies going home with the right proportions!

Social worker

NICU can be a stressful time for anyone. After you come to find the expected outcome of pregnancy has not gone as planned there is no doubt that you will experience stress. You may have other children that you are worried about or have been displaced from your home and traveling long distances to visit. In addition to the bedside nurse the social workers are here to talk to you and to help you access programs and resources that may be of help to you.

Veteran Parent

In our unit we have a person who experienced the journey through NICU firsthand. Having had a preterm baby in the NICU they are very much in tune with the needs of parents. This person may organize information sessions for families or parent groups. The veteran parent and the veteran parent volunteers that she coordinates provide direct one-on-one support to families. They also are responsible for arranging baby cuddlers as mentioned below to help ensure that your baby is not deprived of that important contact time when you can’t be there. The nurses of course help with this as much as they can but with multiple babies to care for having a dedicated person to help coordinate this.

Baby Cuddlers

A recent addition to the team are baby cuddlers who have volunteered their time to be with your baby when you can’t be. Parents often worry about who will be with their baby while they are gone. This service which also includes reading to the infants helps to reduce the isolation many babies would otherwise experience in particular when families are needed back home and need to take a few days to be with their family. There may be a coordinator in the unit as we have for this program who will also help families by providing information sessions and opportunities to get together and share experiences and let you know that you are not alone.

Spiritual Health

Spiritual Health Services recognizes and  celebrates  diversity.  WE provide care to all whether you identify as spiritual, atheist, religious or agnostic.  We are available to journey with you and support the values and belief that are important to you.  Spiritual Health Practitioners  are professional members of the health care team, specifically trained to provide support for your emotional and spiritual well being especially during times of difficulty and crisis.  We also arrange for ceremonies, smudge, sacraments and rituals.

A Whiff of Breast Milk Goes A Long Way

A Whiff of Breast Milk Goes A Long Way

If you have been following this blog for some time you would know that discussions about breastfeeding or breast milk are not an uncommon topic here. Literature exits already examining the impact of consumed breast milk on such outcomes as BPD and ROP. Much of our taste though is influenced by our sense of smell. Our olfactory sense therefore might be quite powerful in terms of having a calming effect on the neonate undergoing a painful procedure. This is the exact hypothesis of a recent study looking at the calming effect of the odor of breast milk during heel lance procedures.

The Study

This study out of Turkey by Tasci B is entitled The Calming Effect of Maternal Breast Milk Odor on Term Infant: A Randomized Controlled Trial. The authors performed a randomized trial of 84 infants (42 formula vs 42 mothers own milk) in which infants prior to a heel poke were exposed to the scent of either formula or human milk for a three minute duration. All infants were between 38-42 weeks gestation at birth and weighted between 2500 – 4000g. Two milliliters of either feed were soaked into filter paper and held under the nose for the study. Perhaps the only fault here was that the study could not be double blinded as the authors note that the intervention and assessment were done by the same researcher. The study though did use pain assessments using the NIPS scoring system and in addition to the researcher a nurse also did a simultaneous assessment. From a biological standpoint, as other authors have done before them, salivary cortisol was used to measure stress response of the infant before and after the noxious stimuli. Conditions under which sampling and scoring were done were standardized as much as possible by maintaining the temperature of the room at 23-26 degrees, and doing all heel pokes 1 hour after a feed.

The Results Please

Pain scoring, heart rate and oxygen saturation levels were all better under conditions of sniffing breast milk than formula as shown in Table 2. The oxygen saturation decline in those who sniffed formula was not clinically significant but did reach statistical significance.

Also perhaps not surprisingly the duration of infant crying was much shorter with exposure to the scent of breast milk vs formula.

Finally the stress response biologically appeared to be attenuated with exposure to breast milk.

What now?

The results of the study are quite interesting to me in that prior work has shown that drops of human milk on a pacifier or in the mouth can improve tolerance to pain. This study adds to the research out there by demonstrating just the scent of breast milk can have a positive effect on tolerance of pain. I suppose the next question is how this could be used. I think for most patients who can tolerate drops of milk in the mouth that would be the preferred method as one would get two senses involved in taste and smell. Having said that there are infants who may not be able to tolerate even a few drops of milk due to poor gag or handling of secretions. What this study adds I suppose is that even have a few drops of milk on filter paper can make a difference to tolerance of pain.

Might this be something that people would prefer to use for a baby who is ventilated or on CPAP? Maybe depending on local unit practices and risk tolerance. At the end of the day though what we have learned here is that our sense of smell is a powerful thing and can modulate how we perceive and react to painful stimuli. As I often say, breast milk is a powerful thing.

How much feeding volume can a preterm baby really take? It’s likely more than you think!

How much feeding volume can a preterm baby really take? It’s likely more than you think!

Since the dawn of my time in Neonatology there has been cibophobia! What is this you ask? It is the fear of food and with some flexibility in the definition I would apply this to large volumes of milk rather than the fear of food itself. Most units in the world seem to use a volume range of about 135 – 165 mL/kg/d as a range considered to mean “at full feeds”. As I was discussing this on rounds today I was quick to point out though that babies with neonatal opioid withdrawal syndrome (NOWS) frequently take in excess of 200 mL/kg/d and we don’t worry about it. The counter argument though is that these infants are “bigger” and should be able to tolerate a larger volume. As readers of this blog know I truly enjoy coming across papers that suggest a change to something considered dogma. Today is one of those days as I am choosing to explore in more depth an abstract that I posted to Twitter and Facebook last month.

On the day of this blog release I also took a poll on Twitter and found some interesting results that make this post all the more important to share. Take a look!

Are Bigger Volumes Better?

Travers CP et al chose to challenge this long held practice in their recent paper Higher or Usual Volume Feedings in Very Preterm Infants: A Randomized Clinical Trial. It was a simple yet wonderful trial that asked the question of whether for infants < 32 weeks GA at birth with BW from 1000-2500g would higher volume feedings of 180-200 vs 140-160 ml/kg/d help increase growth velocity. Randomization occurred after infants had reached 120 mL/kg/d of oral feedings. In both arms advancements from this point were the same and fortification occurrred as per usual practrice but in each arm strategies targeted individual fortification to weight gain.

The authors were seeking a 3 g/kg/d difference in growth and needed 224 infants to demonstrate this difference. They enrolled the same at a mean GA of 30.5 weeks and a BW of 1445 grams. Birth characteristics including gestational age, weight, sex, race/ethnicity, Apgar scores, head circumference, length,
and proportion of infants with a weight <10th percentile at birth did not differ between groups.

The outcomes showed differences as shown below.

Looking at the results

All in all I would say the results are a smashing success. Growth velocity was improved and not just in weight but in head circumference and length. What I find interesting is that if fortification of milk was targeted regardless of the volume used I am a bit baffled as to why the growth rate would still be better but it was. The difference in caloric intake received between groups was approximately 9 kcal/kg/day at day 7 after study entry (126 kcal/kg/day versus 117 kcal/kg/day) and 16 kcal/kg/day from day 14 after study entry onwards (139 kcal/kg/day versus 123 kcal/kg/day).

Blinding here would have been a challenge as nurses and other health care providers would have been able to calculate the expected volumes at different fluid administration levels. Nonetheless there was a difference.

The question though that many would ask is whether this better growth came at the expense of greater morbidity. Let’s be clear here that the study was not powered to look at adverse outcomes and the numbers in the above table are small but no difference was seen nonetheless. To appease the most cautious of Neonatologists I suspect a larger study powered to look at adverse outcomes will be needed. What this study does though is raise the question of whether we can and should try larger volumes. As the title suggests I wonder about getting bigger faster so one can go home. With this more rapid rate of growth can we expect a faster maturation as well? I doubt it but it is something to certainly question in a larger study!

Nasal High Frequency Oscillatory Ventilation For Preventing Intubation

Nasal High Frequency Oscillatory Ventilation For Preventing Intubation

I have reviewed many articles on this site in the last few years. My favourite pieces are ones in which I know the authors and I have to say my ultimate favourite is when I know the authors as colleagues. Such is the case this time around and it pertains to a topic that is not without controversy. Nasal High Frequency Oscillatory Ventilation or NHFOV for short is a form of non-invasive ventilation that claims to be able to prevent reintubation whether used prophylactically (extubation directly to NHFOV) or as a rescue (failing CPAP so use NHFOV instead of intubation). I have written about the topic before in the piece Can Nasal High Frequency Ventilation Prevent Reintubations? but this time around the publication we are looking at is from my own centre!

Retrospective Experience

One of our former fellows who then worked with us for a period of time Dr. Yaser Ali decided to review our experience with NHFOV in the paper Noninvasive High-Frequency Oscillatory Ventilation: A Retrospective Chart Review. Not only is one of our fellows behind this paper but an additional former fellow and current employee Dr. Ebtihal Ali and two of my wonderful colleagues Dr. Molly Seshia and Dr. Ruben Alvaro who both taught be a few things about this chosen career of mine.

The study involved our experience with using this technique (Draeger VN500 providing HFOV through first a RAM cannulae and then later with the FlexiTrunk Midline Interface (FlexiTrunk Midline Interface, Fisher & Paykel Healthcare) either using a prophylactic or rescue approach. The settings were standardized in both approaches as follows.


• Frequency of 6 to 8 Hz.
• Mean airway pressure (MAP)2 cmH2Oabove the MAP of invasive ventilation (whether conventional or high-frequency
• Amplitude to achieve adequate chest oscillation while at rest.


• Frequency of 6 to 8 Hz.
• MAP 1 to 2 cm H2O higher than positive end expiratory pressure (PEEP) on CPAP or biphasic CPAP.
• Amplitude to achieve adequate chest oscillation while at rest.

All in all there were 32 occasions for 27 patients in which prophylaxis was used in 10 and rescue in 22. In the rescue group 77% of the time transfer onto NHFOV was done due to apneic events. The study was retrospective and lacked a control group as such so when it comes to the prophylactic approach it is impossible to know how many of these babies would have done fine with CPAP or Biphasic CPAP. Having said that, in that arm the intervention was successful in keeping babies extubated for at least 72 hours in 6/10. Since I really don’t know if those same babies would have done just as well with CPAP I will stop the discussion about them now.

The Rescue Group

These infants were on a fair bit of support though prior to going on to HFNOV with a mean SD
CPAP of 7.9 cm H2O; while for the biphasic CPAP, the levels were 10.2 cm H2O and 7.7 cm H2O. In the rescue group 73% of the infants did not get intubated.

Let’s Process This For A Minute

I think most of you would agree that an infant on CPAP of +8 or NIPPV who is having repetitive apnea or significant desaturations would inevitably be intubated. In three quarters of these patients they were not but I can assure you they would have been if we had not implemented this treatment. When you look at the whole cohort including prophylactic and rescue you can see that the only real difference in the babies were that the ones who were on lower MAP before going onto NHFOV were more likely to fail.

Interestingly, looking at the effect on apnea frequency there was a very significant reduction in events with NHFOV while FiO2 trended lower (possibly due to the higher MAP that is typically used by 1-2 cm H2O) and pCO2 remained the same.

If pCO2 is no different how does this treatment work if the results are to be believed? Although high frequency ventilation is known for working well to clear CO2 I don’t think when given via this nasal interface it does much in that regard. It may be that the oscillations mostly die out in the nasopharynx. I have often wondered though if the agitation and higher mean airway pressures are responsible compared to straight CPAP or biphasic CPAP alone. There is something going on though as it is hard to argue with the results in our centre that in those who would have been otherwise intubated they avoided this outcome. You could argue I suppose since the study was not blinded that we were willing to ride it out if we believe that NHFOV is superior and will save the day but the information in Table 3 suggests that the babies on this modality truly had a reduction in apnea and I suspect had the sample size been larger we would have seen a reduction that was significant in FiO2.

My thoughts on this therefore is that while I can’t profess that a prophylactic approach after extubation would be any better than going straight to CPAP, I do wonder if NHFOV is something that we should have in our toolkits to deal with the baby who seems to need reintubation due to rising FiO2 and/or apnea frequency. What may need to be looked at prospectively though is a comparison between higher pressures using CPAP and NHFOV. If you were to use CPAP pressures of +10, +11 or +12 and reach equivalent pressures to NHFOV would these advantages disappear?