Imagine a little guy, weighing just one pound, born too early, needing help with everything he does. Enter neonatologists Lisa S. Allred, MD, and Matthew Arnold, MD. The pair has transformed the care available at Munson Medical Center’s Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU) in Traverse City in the last few years, bringing help closer to home for hundreds of parents. Here, we chat with Dr. Allred, who shares how her team cares for our area’s tiniest residents:

What is the biggest change you’ve made?

Before this year, Munson could only care for premature infants born at 28 weeks’ gestation and greater. Now, we offer care for all infants born early, regardless of gestational age. Munson’s NICU is the only Lower Peninsula facility north of Grand Rapids equipped to handle babies with medical needs. (Marquette also has a NICU.) Last year, we cared for 330 infants, including more than 100 babies brought to Munson via jet, helicopter or ambulance, from as far away as Sault Ste. Marie and Alpena.

Who are your tiniest patients?

Our smallest babies weigh about a pound and may only be 12 inches long. They are perfectly formed, and look like miniature, thin versions of a newborn baby. Our most premature infants cannot yet open their eyes, but can move, take breaths and even hold on to their mother’s finger.

Tell us about Munson’s ongoing care for premature infants.

Education is key. Neonatal simulators are being used to model resuscitation, stabilization and interventions that will optimize brain development. A Critical Care Residency program is training our newest nurses in hands-on, acute management of critically ill newborns. Additionally, we are moving toward a family-integrated model of care, where parents have an integral role within the care team.

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How can parents provide care?

Skin bonding with parents is one of the most important contributors to growth and development. We encourage parents to hold their little one against their warm, bare chests every day. This “kangaroo care” promotes bonding, stimulates maternal milk production and decreases infant stress. It’s amazing to watch babies heart rates and breathing rates slow down within minutes of snuggling into their parents’ chest, a clear indicator that they’re at ease.

What’s next for NICU?

Plans for a new NICU are a part of the Family Birth and Children’s Center expansion that is a few years down the road. There will be 12 private rooms, 12 semi-private transitional beds and an expanded facility of 15,500 square feet. Right now, we have 20 beds in a communal room and our current space is just 2,700 square feet.