New virtual tours will help parents whose babies are born early or need specialist care

Published: 26 January 2023

Parents whose children are born early or need specialist care can take a virtual look behind the doors of the hospital ward where their baby will be cared for, all from the comfort of their home.

The South West Neonatal Network has created a series of virtual tours showcasing the region’s 12 special care baby units and neonatal transport service to give parents a 360° tour of the ward, including where their baby will be cared for, feeding rooms, and bedded rooms where they’ll sleep with their child to prepare for their return home.

They also give brothers, sisters and grandparents a chance to see where their new relative is staying.

Around 4,000 babies a year spend time on a neonatal unit in the South West. Some babies only need to stay on a unit for a few days, while others may spend weeks or even months on a unit, which become second homes for parents.

Heidi Green, who is the network’s lead care coordinator, hopes the tours will help demystify parents’ concerns and worries so they can focus on caring for their child.

She said: “No one plans to have a premature baby or a child who needs extra help when they’re first born, so being told their little one will need to be cared for on a neonatal unit can be incredibly overwhelming.

“Research shows that 80% of parents* think their mental health suffered from having a baby admitted to neonatal care. They’ve also told us they feel lonely and helpless seeing their baby in an incubator surrounded by ventilators, wires, bright lights and loud noises. It may also be their first time in hospital and it may feel alien, so it’s vital we do all we can to support them.

“We created these interactive tours with parents whose children had been cared for on a unit to help remove the element of surprise by showing them where their baby will stay. They also receive a virtual welcome and messages of support from the team which will care for their baby, and they can watch the tours as many times as they want, and when they want; we hope it will be one less thing for them to worry about.”

The tours also include messages with parents whose children have been cared for on a unit, including Tanya and Gabi Szabo, whose son Nikó spent time on a neonatal unit 4 years ago.

Tanya said: “Nikó was born 2 weeks early. He had an unexpectedly dramatic entrance to the world and spent 11 days in intensive care, and a further 5 days in a special care baby unit. The first 6 days were incredibly numb and I have blocked a lot of it out, but I remember being wheeled in beside him and just staring at him in an incubator. He was so tiny and it was a painfully long wait until we could hold him.

“It wasn’t how I imagined our family would begin, and it was an incredibly intense period but the team were brilliant and helped us to connect with him by encouraging us to talk and sing to him, and holding his hand when we could.

“These tours would have been incredibly helpful when Nikó was born to help us prepare for our time on the unit. We wanted to share our story with other parents to help them know they’re not alone and that what they feel is very normal.”

Carol Walker, who is a modern matron at Torbay and South Devon NHS Foundation Trust hopes the tours will empower parents. She said: “We care for around 200 babies a year on the special care baby unit at Torbay Hospital. Some parents may have time to prepare for an early birth, while for others it may be completely unexpected. No parent wants their baby to spend their first days on a neonatal unit, but when they do we want them to know they’ll be well cared for.”

The tours are hosted on the South West Neonatal Network website and hospital trust websites, and on the VCreate parent communication system which operates in all neonatal units.