Why Noise Matters in the NICU: Minimizing Patient's Exposure to Loud Noises

March 14, 2019

In the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU), infants are constantly cared for and monitored. And while that is certainly a good thing, the alarms, beeps and buzzes from the cardiopulmonary and other monitors greatly increase noise levels and expose the babies to high intensity sound. The sound environment in most NICUs is louder than a typical home or office environment, in many cases exceeding the maximum acceptable level of 45 decibels (dB) recommended by the American Academy of Pediatrics.

In fact, researchers at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis have found that preemies in NICUs are exposed to average noise levels of just under 59 dB, with peak noise levels reaching almost 87 dB. While the measured noise often comes from medical equipment that is essential to the baby’s survival, infants in open wards are not only exposed to noise from their own equipment, but also to the alarms and noises from their wardmates’ equipment.

The study also found that private, semi-private or single-family rooms can help minimize NICU patients’ exposure to loud noises. And that’s not the only benefit of private rooms in the NICU. Another study, which was recently published in Lancet Child & Adolescent Health, showed that private rooms can reduce the risk of neonatal sepsis and improve rates of exclusive breastfeeding at discharge.

Without the high noise level and general exposure of open bay NICUs, babies in single-family rooms experience quieter, more nurturing care from their families and a reduced chance of contracting an infection. Plus, many single-family NICU rooms today include refrigeration units for breast milk or formula. This makes it easier for parents to feed their babies with minimal staff involvement and ensures that the right infant receives the right milk.

RELATED READ: The New NICU: Caring for the Entire Family

Compact NICU refrigerators should add to the convenience and comfort of the room, but not the noise level. The last thing a hospital wants is for loud compressors and frequent out-of-range temperature alarms to wake patients and/or disturb the healing environment. That’s why solid-state medical-grade refrigerators are an ideal choice for NICU breast milk refrigeration. Without noisy compressors and fans that rev up and down all day, solid-state refrigerators run almost silently – at less than 35 dB. It is also easier for a solid-state system to maintain temperature stability throughout the entire cabinet, keeping breast milk safely stored at the temperature range recommended by the FDA and CDC (0-4.4°C).

Reducing noise levels in the NICU through private rooms and quieter equipment can improve preemies’ physiologic stability and support brain development. Plus, many NICU parents find that the peace and privacy of single-family rooms and the ability to feed and care for their baby more independently helps make their NICU stay a little more tolerable, gives them a sense of control and brings them closer to their baby.

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