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Erica Ryherd

Controlling Acoustics in NICUs

Study on NICU Acoustics Comes Through Loud and Clear

January 2020

It’s well known that day-to-day life in a NICU (neonatal intensive care unit) can be stressful and draining for families. Premature babies and infants with other serious health issues after birth may spend days, weeks, or even months in a NICU. Amidst all the machines and activity necessary to care for the new arrivals, hospitals often designate strict “quiet time” scheduled in the unit each day. And thanks to research from a University of Nebraska–Lincoln team, we’re learning just how important quiet time is in supporting NICU patients.

baby in nicu receiving breathing treatment
An oxygen mask is placed on a patient in Nebraska Medicine’s NICU.

Financial support is imperative for this kind of research, which hadn’t been deeply explored yet.

“Being a patient or the parent of a patient (in a NICU) can be traumatic. In those situations, we don’t need noise making things even worse,” said Erica Ryherd, associate professor of architectural engineering at UNL and leader of the project.“Despite the growing evidence of the negative impacts of NICU soundscapes on infants, there are large and pressing gaps in the literature that need immediate attention before ideal, evidence-based NICU soundscapes are achievable and more widely implemented.”

As part of a wider study on acoustics in hospitals, UNL researchers collaborated with three NICUs across the country to implement quiet time hours—scheduled periods of quiet or softened sounds through behavioral or operational changes. They analyzed results of quiet time in the short term and after 16 months, and the results revealed some unexpected insights.

“The newborns seemed to thrive more during those quiet times.”

“The newborns seemed to thrive more during those quiet times, hopefully making it easier for premature babies to transition to life outside the womb and lowering the risk of disease,” Ryherd said. “But it wasn’t necessarily because of overall loudness, which was not changing as much as we hoped.”

Loud sounds were still occurring, but much less frequently. More time was spent at quieter levels and those periods were longer and more frequent. The volume of speech, alarms and other ambient sounds was also quieter.

The quiet time protocols are only part of an overall recommendation. These would also include engineering solutions such as “thinking about how the units are designed, including the unit layout, the materials used in the building, the HVAC systems and overall noise control.”

Even with these new recommendations, Ryherd says their research is far from complete. With continued financial support for the university, research like this will continue to lead to discoveries that not only put Nebraska in the spotlight—but support the smallest patients in our state.

Editors Note: Gandhi is now the Charles W. and Marge H. Durham Distinguished Professor of Interdisciplinary Informatics at UNO.

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