Comer Children’s opens first Small Baby Unit on Chicago’s South Side

Image of NICU Small Baby Unit
The new 16-bed Small Baby Unit is located within Comer Children's Hospital's 71-bed NICU and includes environmental features like dim lighting and soundproofing.

The University of Chicago Medicine Comer Children’s Hospital recently celebrated the launch of their Small Baby Unit. Located in the hospital’s 71-bed Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU), the Small Baby Unit is specially designed to care for babies who are born at 30 weeks or less or weigh less than 1,250 grams (2.76 lbs). It’s the first small baby unit to open on Chicago’s South Side.

While staff with the hospital’s NICU have always cared for the tiniest of patients, the 16-bed Small Baby Unit is staffed with a multidisciplinary care team trained to meet the unique medical needs of these vulnerable babies.

“Research shows that dedicated small baby units improve outcomes for extremely preterm infants,” said Kelly Nelson Kelly, MD, Assistant Professor of Pediatrics at UChicago Medicine and a neonatologist with the unit. “Each team member in the Small Baby Unit has a dedicated role in ensuring the best, most optimized care for our babies.”

Nurses, nurse practitioners, physicians, respiratory therapists, developmental therapists, dietitians, Child Life specialists and all other team members work together to make sure babies are taken care of and their parents are centered in their children’s care.

Parents are currently included on rounds with their babies’ care teams while a plan is crafted for the day. This not only allows them to learn about what that care involves, but it also gives them a chance to advocate for themselves and their babies’ needs.

“We’re always looking for ways to support parents and increase their presence at the bedside,” said Brandi Parker, Clinical Director of The Margaret M. and George A. Stephen Neonatal Intensive Care Unit at UChicago Medicine Comer Children’s Hospital. “In a lot of situations with small babies, you’re not able to just go and pick them up. You need to find alternative methods for bonding, which can be anything from reading to them to placing a cloth with a parent’s scent on it underneath their heads.”

Babies have been admitted to the Small Baby Unit as early as 22 weeks, which means they need extra safeguards to make sure their sleeping space is developmentally appropriate. They’re put in positioners that mimic how they would be situated in the uterus, which helps them get adequate sleep that contributes to healthy neurodevelopment. The unit is also equipped with womb-like environmental features such as dim lighting and soundproofing.

Each team member in the Small Baby Unit has a dedicated role in ensuring the best, most optimized care for our babies.

Nelson Kelly and Parker said while the unit’s first couple months have been a success, they hope to build on their practices in years to come.

“We’re very focused on making this a family-centered initiative,” said Nelson Kelly. “We want to provide continuing education and use evidence-based medicine to do things like help parents increase breastmilk production and become more engaged in their babies’ care.”

Nelson Kelly said the unit has been mostly full since it opened in early September 2023. Babies tend to graduate from the unit between what would have been 30 and 32 weeks of the pregnancy, transitioning into the hospital’s larger NICU.

Neonatology Kelly Nelson-Kelly, MD

Kelly Nelson, MD

Kelly Nelson, MD, is a neonatologist. She provides specialized care for newborns in the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU).

Read more about Dr. Nelson