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The research project 'What Babies Tell Us', is revolutionizing the way babies are treated while in intensive care

When baby Matilda was born at only 24 weeks, she weighed just 590 grams and was so small she could be held in the palm of your hand. 

After being resuscitated and intubated straight after birth, she was rushed to the Grace Centre for Newborn Intensive Care at The Children’s Hospital at Westmead, NSW. Too fragile to hold,

Matilda’s worried mother could only place gentle hands into her humidicrib while she watched her fight for her life.

What followed was five and a half months of inpatient treatment for Matilda, as well as surgery to remove a third of her bowel and extensive specialist treatment – then, finally, she was well enough to go home. The difficult and traumatic inpatient journey, for this family, was finally over.

Matilda’s story is not unusual. 

One in six newborn infants require hospitalisation in the first month and, for these families, having a baby in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU) is deeply distressing. It’s also immensely stressful for the babies themselves and can have a lifelong impact.

A new research project, ‘What Babies Tell Us’, is aiming to reduce that stress and protect their vulnerable brains through listening and responding to their unique needs.

The importance of skin-to-skin contact

The study, run by Associate Professor Kaye Spence AM and her team at The Grace Centre for Newborn Intensive Care, is following four stages based on the NIDCAP principles – a philosophy of care which trains healthcare professionals to read infant cues and model care based on the child’s individual needs:

Involve the parent in skin-to-skin contact with the baby (holding their baby next to their skin) during stressful procedures such as having blood taken and measuring the baby’s cortisol levels to assess whether their stress levels decrease.

Further assess how to reduce stress for babies during care practices, such as nappy changes. 

Provide nurses with neurodevelopmental training , enabling them to amend their practice. 

Translate and send a research questionnaire to families from culturally and linguistic diverse backgrounds to gauge feedback from a wide range of participants. 

Once the study is completed, it is anticipated that skin-to-skin care will become the normal practice for potentially painful and stressful procedures. This will decrease the distress of the baby and the likelihood of the experience negatively impacting their development. 

It will also educate nurses and empower parents, who will be able to use the baby’s language to provide appropriate and individualised care.

Additional support

“While the project has been partially funded by grants, more support is needed,” said Associate Professor Spence. 

“Because a nurse will be required to be ‘off the floor’ to participate in research, we need to ensure that another nurse can be deployed in their place. We also need to ensure that we can access laboratory services to measure cortisol levels – both of which require funding.”

Associate Professor Spence, like many others in the NIDCAP community, is convinced of the long term benefits this study could have on neurodevelopmental outcomes for babies, long after they are discharged from NICU.

“It’s hoped that this project will revolutionise the way that babies are treated while in intensive care,” explained Associate Professor Spence. “We want to empower and educate nurses to help babies become less distressed by their treatment through the involvement of parents, who until now have had to watch from the sidelines.” 

What Babies Tell Us has been developed thanks to the Sydney Children’s Hospitals Foundation’s Greenlight Pilot and is part funded by Cerebral Palsy Alliance and the Dick and Pip Smith Foundation. 

To find out more, visit

About Sydney Children’s Hospitals Foundation 

Sydney Children’s Hospitals Foundation is one of the largest and most trusted kids’ health charities in the country. Sydney Children’s Hospitals Foundation exists to help provide all children with access to the best possible healthcare, whenever and wherever they need it. 

Whether it’s used for new equipment, training and education or groundbreaking research, building state-of-the-art facilities or more, the money raised by the Foundation provides kids with the world-class healthcare they deserve. Over 170,000 kids are helped each year, with countless numbers benefitting for generations to come. 

For more information about Sydney Children’s Hospital Foundation, click here.

A number of children's hospitals and paediatric health services are supported by Sydney Children's Hospitals Foundation through trusts managed by Equity Trustees.