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Parenting Partnership helps babies and families thrive after they leave the NICU

Although graduation from the NICU is a momentous occasion, it can also be distressing to transition to life at home alone with a fragile baby.

By Kortney Scroger

Each year, more than 650 vulnerable infants leave MultiCare Tacoma General Hospital’s Level IV Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU) to begin their lives at home. This transition can be challenging and scary.

Some NICU families spend months in the hospital after the birth of their medically fragile infant. During those months, they are constantly surrounded by caregivers and medical monitors, where help is just a step or phone call away.

Although graduation from the NICU is a momentous occasion, it can also be distressing to transition to life at home alone with a fragile baby.

For Katherine Goodsel, she felt like she was living in constant survival mode when her son, Iyah, left the Tacoma General NICU two years ago.

“That first year and a half was about keeping Iyah alive,” she says. “He was attached to us 24 hours a day. He was strapped to my husband and I constantly.”

Mya Gibson, mother of twins Kamilla and Kiara, had a similar experience.

“It was one of the scariest times of my life,” Gibson recalls. “I would watch my daughter all night to make sure she was still breathing.”

Nothing can prepare families for the emotional, financial and social stressors that follow a stay in the NICU, not to mention the responsibility of caring for a medically fragile child. These families face significant issues: grief, loss and overwhelming stress related to their baby’s dependence and medical needs.

As a result, Mary Bridge Children’s created the Parenting Partnership program, which is funded by community contributions. Parenting Partnership helps families such as the Goodsels and the Gibsons manage the ups and downs of the first three years of life after they leave the NICU. It strengthens attachment and bonding between new moms and their babies and promotes sensitive caregiving. The program works with a variety of community partners, Mary Bridge clinics and providers to ensure that families receive the emotional and medical support they need.

“We walk alongside parents to help them navigate the complexity of their medical appointments and procedures ensuring their engagement and understanding of their baby’s health care needs,” says social worker Meschell Miloscia.

This support begins the minute families leave the hospital. Once a family is discharged, a Parenting Partnership social worker contacts them.

“Within a few days, we set a follow-up appointment with a nurse from the NICU to visit the home and check on medical concerns like weight gain and proper use of equipment. The nurse joins us for two visits. After that, it’s just the mom and I,” says social worker Susan-Lynn Walters.

For the next three years, families work with an assigned social worker who meets with them monthly. The support can take different forms depending on the needs of the family.

“We wear many different hats when we’re with families,” says another social worker, MaryAnn Fortunato. “We’re there for the baby, checking in on mom and her mental health. We can come with them to doctor appointments. Sometimes, we’re just lending an ear.”

Goodsell recalls how impactful it was to have someone to talk to after her son’s stay in the NICU.

“I remember one of the first times Susan came over,” Goodsell recalls. “She took Iyah from me, who was very fragile at the time, and asked me if I needed anything. I remember thinking ‘Oh, someone gets it!’ It was a very powerful moment for me.

“When you have a child born with an unexpected medical issue, there is a mix of joy and grief,” she continues. “When you have expectations for a healthy child, it’s a life-altering event. Having people help me navigate a difficult medical system, provide support for bonding with my child, and encouraging me to be the best parent I can be — I couldn’t ask for more.”

Parenting Partnership

Along with home visits, participating families can also attend support groups that are offered twice a month.

“The basis of the groups is to decrease social isolation and allow for community experiences in safe surroundings,” says social worker Deanna Cristel. “Parents come because they are being supported. The support group process allows for connection that can normalize their experience and I don’t think they get that anywhere else in their lives.”

Not only is the progress with these families seen by social workers and providers, but the results are also measurable. Using a standard measuring system where parent and child interactions are filmed and scored, 97 percent of Parenting Partnership participants in 2017 demonstrated sensitivity to their infant’s cues, which is a hallmark of positive parent-child attachment.

For parents, the support for their children and for themselves is priceless.

“This program has value,” Gibson says. “You get parents that can take care of their children, who can be good to their children. You are investing in a life.”

Parenting Partnership

In 2017, donor contributions helped 63 children and 98 parents receive support through Parenting Partnership via 1,081 home visits and 22 group sessions.

Join us on Nov. 30 at Tinsel on the Town, a Mary Bridge Children’s Festival of Trees event benefiting Parenting Partnership.

Learn more about Tinsel on the Town and buy tickets