There was a time when the outlook for a premature baby — meaning born before 37 weeks of gestation — was grim. For babies born earlier than 30 weeks, there was no outlook at all. But medical advances are improving the outcomes for these tiny babies. A new specialized unit at California's Children's Hospital may dramatically reduce disability and infection rates for even the youngest of babies.

Experts say fewer than 1 percent of babies are born in the "micro preemie" category. The definition of a micro-preemie differs from hospital to hospital, but babies born earlier than 26-30 weeks fall within this category. At the Children's Hospital of Orange County in California, micro-preemies are those born before 28 weeks or born weighing less than 2.2 pounds.

Because they are born months before their due dates, micro preemies face long stays in NICU, or neonatal intensive care unit. Those who do survive may face severe health problems, such as disabilities and infections, throughout their lives.

Children's Hospital's new Small Baby Unit wants to improve the outcome for these tiny babies. The unit is designed specifically with their needs in mind. Unlike other pediatric intensive care units, where a preemie baby may be surrounded by the chaotic atmosphere of bright lights, loud noises, and children and babies of all ages and with all sorts of health complications, micro-preemies in the Small Baby Unit are enveloped by an atmosphere of calm. The staff work in darkness and speak in hushed tones. The idea is to mimic the mother's womb as closely as possible so that these tender little infants can adjust to their new world outside the womb without overstimulation.

At the Small Baby Unit, parents are guided by staff in methods that allow them to participate in their baby's care. They are taught how to perform massages that comfort, without over-stimulating. And when the babies are ready, parents are taught how to provide "kangaroo care," using skin-to-skin contact while the baby lies on his mother's chest.

Do these new methods work?

The numbers are promising. In 2009, just before the Small Baby Unit was operational, 45 percent of babies in the hospital's NICU were discharged with chronic lung disease. In 2012, with the Small Baby Unit up and running, that rate had dropped to 27 percent. Infection rates for these babies also dropped from 2009 to 2012 from 41 percent to 15 percent. Other indicators of preemie health, such as feeding, weight and head circumference have also improved.

Those are numbers worth cheering about.

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