Sniff, sniff. Sniff. Sniff. Much like a dog, I poked my nose upward. The essence of vending machine coffee swirled through the stale museum air. This scent immediately took me back to the basement of the arts center where fellow dancers and I used to get ready to perform in productions like The Nutcracker and A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Aww, I sighed, feeling nostalgic and missing the many years I spent dancing on stage.
Our sense of smell is fascinating. It can facilitate a sort of time travel as I experienced at the museum. It often connects us to strong emotions. As adults, we can distinguish between about 10,000 different smells and it is the first sense we use when we’re born. We know scent plays an important role in breastfeeding.
What’s more, research shows that maternal scent may have a positive effect on the neurodevelopment of hospitalized, premature infants, some of whom may not be able to directly breastfeed right away.
With this in mind, the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) at Lee Memorial Health System’s Golisano Children’s Hospital of Southwest Florida developed a program called “Heart-to-Heart” Care to offer parents an opportunity to provide their babies with a sense of closeness while they are separated. If parents choose to participate in the program, they are provided with two small cloth hearts and directions as follows:
- Store clean “heart” in a new Ziploc bag until worn.
- Wear the clean “heart” tucked in upper bra, away from leaking breastmilk, next to freshly washed, unscented skin for 12-24 hours.
- Avoid all exposures to perfumes, pet hair, smoke, environmental pollutants or strong odors.
- Wear “heart” to NICU or PCN or place in clean Ziploc bag to bring to infant.
- Use the hearts until your baby goes home, and you may then take them home with you.
- Wash “heart” in unscented laundry detergent, rinse thoroughly.
- Hang dry or dry in electric dryer without fabric softener or softening sheets.
- Be sure to contact you baby’s nurse if you have any questions.
In The development of potentially better practices to support the neurodevelopment of infants in the NICU, the authors write, “Within days after birth, olfactory preferences seem to be reinforced by exogenous cues associated with the mother’s unique body odor and breast milk characteristics,which may be translated into improved non-nutritive sucking.”
They continue, “These familiar odors also seem to have an adjunctive calming or soothing effect compared to non-familiar odors or no odors during venipuncture or heel lancing procedures, with the stress of maternal separation or as a soothing tool.”
Lee Memorial Health System NICU nurse and lactation professional Donna Warr, RN, IBCLC works with families participating in the heart to heart program. She explains that breastfeeding a NICU baby is incredibly involved.
“These babies and mothers face so many challenges,” she says.
For one, many mothers with babies in the NICU have to commit to pumping until the infant can directly breastfeed, often while being separated for long periods of time.
During this time, it is imperative that Warr and colleagues support mothers and give value to their breastmilk. With proper support mothers are motivated to pump in order to maintain lactation and to provide unequaled sustenance for their babies. One way Warr and colleagues achieve this is by facilitating breastmilk oral care. During breastmilk oral care, a Q-tip is soaked in mother’s milk for baby to suck on or gently swabbed to coat baby’s mouth.
“One of the most rewarding experiences is to see the tears of joy from a mother of vented infant when the baby sucks on the breastmilk soaked Q-tip,” Warr says.
Maintaining consistent, quality information throughout a mother and baby’s care can be challenging especially in the NICU setting. Last year, Warr presented a poster at the USBC conference in August titled, Bridging the Gap, Transforming NICU pumping moms into breastfeeding moms.
“From the health care system to the breastfeeding family, the education must be consistent to provide the breastfeeding mother with the support needed to achieve success,” Warr says.
Golisano Children’s Hospital of Southwest Florida NICU’s next project will be introducing infant driven feeds.