Neonatal Intensive Care
A neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) is a place that is never quiet. It is filled with medical equipment, incubators, babies and staff. The background noise constantly exceeds 50 dB, which is equivalent to hearing the ongoing sound of a refrigerator or of light traffic. Sometimes the noise peaks up to 70-75 dB (like a vacuum cleaner). This noise goes on 24/7, day and night.
As babies (like most of us) need a quiet environment to be able to sleep well, it becomes clear that being exposed to constant noise is unsustainable. For a baby to get a good quality sleep, normal noise levels should be around 30 dB (equal to a whisper), and peak levels should be lower than 40-45 dB (like the noise from a stream).
And what’s more, constant noise is not just tough for the babies, but also for the staff. It is difficult to concentrate in noisy environments, which leads to an increase in stress levels among staff.
It is easy to see that NICUs are not acoustically friendly environments. This was also the conclusion drawn by acoustician Tom Segers after having spent many hours in a NICU with his premature baby boy. When given the chance, he decided to do something about it and got involved in designing a new and improved NICU at the University Hospitals Leuven in Belgium.
Meet the new NICU: balanced and more acoustically friendly
When designing the new NICU, it was important to find compromise and balance between thermal comfort, visual comfort, air quality & hygiene, and acoustic comfort.
As for the unit’s design, each baby got a single room, and surrounding the rooms is an inner bay where the staff is stationed and an outer bay where parents can stay during their time in the NICU.
Good acoustic design was of great importance when designing, and three pillars need to be in balance to get the best acoustic result. These pillars consist of:
- Limiting the background noise
- Sound-proofing the rooms, in order to have good speech privacy and good sound insulation between the rooms
- Limiting the reverberation time, or else you will remain troubled by a very noisy environment.
Next step – the incubator
Even though Segers and the design team efficiently managed to decrease the noise in the different NICU rooms, they realised that they also have to consider the noise level inside the incubator. Usually, around 50 dB (like a refrigerator or light traffic), the noise consists of tonal rather than natural noises, which could make it even more stressful for the baby. In the old NICU, it was not as relevant to pay attention to what happens inside the incubator, since more noise was created outside of it. With the new and improved unit, however, this is where good solutions and more research are needed at the moment.
Recording of mum’s voice to aid speech development
As research shows, the NICU rooms can sometimes become even too silent, especially when the parents of the baby cannot be around for several hours. This can have a negative effect on the development of speech for the baby. A solution has been to record the voice of the mother to use when the parents are not present. Surely, it does not beat the real thing, but can perhaps make a tough situation a little easier.
record the voice of the mother to use when the parents are not present
Learn more about designing NICUs by watching Tom Segers presentation given at EIAS 2015 below.