URBANA — The lights are low, the sounds are hushed and for the tiny preemies here, it may well be the next best place to still being inside their moms.
This is the new Small Baby Unit at Carle Foundation Hospital, where the smallest and most fragile premature infants are now spending their first weeks in the world.
It's an environment designed to mimic the warm, dark, quiet place inside the womb, free of the brighter lights and louder sounds they'd be exposed to even in the neonatal intensive care unit.
Light and sound can subject these tiniest of babies to a sensory overload that can impact their development, according to Carey Gaede, the neonatal nurse practitioner who led the charge for Carle's new Small Baby Unit.
"The environment is so important because the babies, their brains are still developing outside of mom," she said.
This new six-bed unit opened early last month, 16 days after Polly and Dale Colter of Paris had their first child at Carle.
Weighing in at 2 pounds, 8 ounces, Will Colter was the first baby placed in the new Small Baby Unit, according to Carle.
He's since doubled his weight since his birth and has been moved back into the NICU until he's able to go home, according to Polly Colter.
Her son's condition improved dramatically in the special unit for small babies, Colter said. He began sleeping better, opening his eyes more and having less breathing difficulty, she said.
"He started gaining weight faster. He was calmer," she said.
The survival of very low birth weight preemies has improved in neonatal intensive care units, but many surviving babies are discharged with neurodevelopmental delays and/or chronic medical conditions, according to research published in 2015 in the journal Pediatrics. The researchers concluded very low birth weight infant outcomes improved in small baby units.
"Despite the complexity of illness in extremely pre-term infants, our experience reinforces 'how we do it' matters, and a gentle approach of 'less is more' is often best," the authors wrote.
The launch of the Carle Small Baby Unit included a visit by Carle staff to the Helen DeVos Children's Hospital in Grand Rapids, Mich., where a small baby unit has been in operation for more than two years, plus new staff training at Carle, Gaede said. A specialized team works in the unit around the clock.
Polly Colter said she wasn't due to deliver her son until Sept. 12. She was air-lifted to Carle from Sarah Bush Lincoln Health Center when she went into premature labor.
She's enjoyed being able to have a hand in her son's care, even while he was in the Small Baby Unit, she said.
She also happily reported Will had his first bottle-feeding on Monday. One of the milestones he'll need to reach before he can be released from the NICU and go home is drinking three-quarters of each bottle and taking every feeding, she said.
Carle's Small Baby Unit is intended for babies who are born at less than 30 weeks gestation, Gaede said. Term babies are born at 37-40 weeks.
There have been more than a dozen babies born at Carle who fit the criteria for the new unit, and it's been consistently full, she said. There is also a curtained-off transition space in the NICU that can be used for Small Baby Unit overflow.
A cellphone-free zone where conversation can be whispered only, the Small Baby Unit can be an initial adjustment for the parents, Gaede said.
"But once they've gotten in there, they've really liked it," she said.