The NICU can be a stressful and confusing place for families, whether navigating it for a few hours, or for weeks. The communication (or lack thereof) between different care providers can be bewildering, and make it feel like there are ever moving goal posts. Even more bewildering is that the NICU can be scary, frustrating, joyful and peaceful place all AT THE SAME TIME, making it overwhelming for already exhausted new parents. After talking to several families who have personally experienced it, I wanted to try to put together some tips for you, if you find yourself in that special place.
First, a logistical note: the hospital bands that you and your partner receive when your baby is born have a set of 5 numbers; these numbers will also match the band they put on your baby. The bands identify you as a family unit. Make sure that you do not take off your bands until you are all discharged.
Okay, now onto the tips:
Over the years my son and I have shared a love of the history and discovery channels. I particularly love to watch shows like ‘Mysteries at the Museum’ with him. It truly whets your appetite for digging deeper into the story behind things that you learn.
One such episode is the one called ‘Trunk of Horrors,’ one of the 3-4 stories shared in this one is about ‘babies in incubators. This is where I first learned about Martin Couney and the Infantorioum at Coney Island. Dr. Couney can be said to be one of the pioneers of the modern NICU departments in hospitals today.
It wasn’t until his death in 1950 that hospitals started to copy what he did and create a unit dedicated to supporting and preserving the lives of the most vulnerable.
It was not a brand new idea, or a brand new invention; It was an idea that had been used by farmers to hatch eggs. Dr. Couney apprenticed under Dr. Pierre Budin. Budin was an OBGYN from Paris who valued the importance of educating mothers on the benefits of breastfeeding. It was through what he learned under Budin that Couney decided to sell the incubator idea around the world.
In 1896 Couney and Budin presented the first ‘Child-hatchery’ at the world fair in Berlin.
This is where inventors, investors, general public, and sideshow ‘freaks’ would gather together to make a name for themselves and hopefully a bit of money.
The Beginning of a NICU
In the early 1900’s there were no special unit’s in hospitals to care for premature or babies who needed some extra care.Where
In 1903 Couney opened his first infantorium on Coney Island. Couney received a lot of push back when starting out due to most Dr’s believing that if the baby was born early there was a reason, and that trying to save that life would ‘spread’ whatever deformity or illness that baby had. The Eugenics movement was going quite strongly during this era, and a lot of people believed that it was more gracious to let a premature baby, or one that had any mental or physical issues due for the betterment of the human race.
The slogan on the outside of the unit read: “Everybody loves a baby!
The incubators were set up with glass sides so that the babies could be viewed while inside.
Each incubator had thermostats controlling the temperature with steam heat systems. They also filtered the air being pulled in to the babies to make sure that they were not breathing in any germs from the outside.
The Infantorium had very strict cleanliness standards, it was a miniature hospital. Dr. Couney employed a doctor, a team of nurses, and wet nurses to care for the babies. ( The wet nurses were used if the mothers could not breastfeed or produce milk). As an employee you were held to a standard of no drinking, smoking, or eating unhealthy foods. As a wet nurse if you were ‘caught’ doing any of these things you were fired. Dr. Couney wanted to make sure that the babies were receiving the best of the best while under his care.
His Nurses were directed to hold, snuggle and kiss the babies, as he believed that they responded and needed the affection.
Any family who had a baby in the unit was not charged a cent for the care that their babies received. Some babies were in the infantorium for 6 months or more.
The babies were all dressed in ‘normal size infant clothes, and one of the nurses would often put a ring on their arm to demonstrate to the crowds just how small they were.
It cost 25 cents to view the babies, with the popularity of the show Couney was able to pay all his employees a decent wage, had a chef on staff to cook healthy food for the wet nurses, and was able to afford to travel and present his concept to the public all over the country.
Public outcry that Couney was using the children for monetary gain had some traction and Child protective services did several inspections and families of babies who had ‘graduated’ united and backed up Couney for the work he was doing.
The Infantorium ran successfully in Luna Park on Coney Island for 40 years. During that time, over 8000 babies were cared for here, and over 6500 survived into adulthood.
We would not have the ability to save the lives of the smallest today if it were not for men like Couney, and Budin.
NICU’s today with the high standard of care, training and cleanliness can draw their history back to a sideshow on Coney Island. Today we are more selective about who can visit these little warriors, thanks to continued learning. Families who have experienced the care of a NICU team can attribute the standards of cleanliness, awareness of germs, as well as the focus on nutrition to the work that Dr. Martin Couney did at Coney Island over the course of 40 years of work.
Some of the interviews from people who were babies on display are some of the sweetest you will ever listen to.
Life under glass is a radio show that was recorded telling all about Dr. Couney.
Lucille Horn Born in 1920, and lived to be 96 years old.