UCI Studies Effects of Exercise on Premature Babies

Incidents of premature births continue to increase, making it imperative for researchers to identify methods to enhance weight gain and to reduce the time that premature babies spend in the neonatal intensive care units of hospitals.
A $2.7 million grant from the National Institute of Nursing Research and the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development was received by the UC Irvine Medical Center on Sept. 30. The grant award will be used in the NICU at UCI over the course of four years.
Inspired by an Israeli study which yielded positive results in baby weight gain and growth hormone, this study aims to demonstrate that a small intervention exercise given to premature babies will enhance growth and development.
‘The NICU nurses performed a preliminary study that lasted for about a year-and-a-half on 55 premature babies,’ said Maria Coussens, the study’s co-investigator and UCI neonatal intensive care unit nurse.
Unlike the preliminary research, this study institutes a double-masked method. In fact, not even the parents will be notified if their baby is given this intervention.
‘I found it amazing that such a small intervention could really change the way nurses practice and give positive lifelong effects to the babies,’ Coussens said.
The intervention used on premature babies can potentially increase bone density, calcium and weight gain. The nurses, who play a critical role in clinical care and research teams at the UCIMC, hope to enhance nursing intervention in respect to prenatal development, and consequently get the babies discharged sooner.
The NICU provides specialized care to more than 500 premature infants born at the UCIMC and neighboring counties. Dan Cooper, principle investigator of the study and a doctor at the UCI General Clinical Research Center, oversees the research.
‘I would like to emphasize the collaborative nature of the research. This study is one of the first in which scientists, nurses and physicians collaborate,’ Cooper said.
Muscular movement is very critical to infants because it is a natural instinct.
‘Presently, premature babies are wrapped in a bundle rather than being given any kind of exercise,’ Cooper said.
In reality, the natural inclination for babies to move is probably most beneficial for development. Two variables will be tested in this study: cuddling a baby alone versus cuddling and exercising. The noninvasive exercise will be conducted by a team of nurses that will gently move the arms and legs of premature babies.
‘Through the noninvasive exercise babies are given, we are trying to restore natural movement activity,’ Cooper said. ‘In fact, we find that babies come to learn the movements of the exercises and seem to enjoy it.’
In the future Cooper hopes to study long-term effects of neonatal exercise.
The positive results in the Israeli study and preliminary study leave researchers hopeful. The exercise procedures may change the way that nurses and doctors practice throughout the country and may help get these babies fit to leave the NICU faster.