Phone app keeps families connected with newborns in NICU as coronavirus forces them apart

The joy of having a baby has changed under the threat of the coronavirus pandemic, and nowhere is that threat felt more deeply than in the NICU with at-risk infants.

The normal stress of the NICU is now amplified.

“It was really, really stressful to deal with the anxiety of the NICU and then COVID,” said new father Gibi George.

Gibi and Subin George are finally home with their daughter after 51 days in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit at Northwestern's Prentice Women's Hospital. They watched the coronavirus threat grow, along with restrictions on visitors. Now, only one parent can visit their baby each day.

“It instantly is heart wrenching to think about parents in the midst of a pandemic and how do you have some semblance of understanding and bonding and attachment with that baby,” said Dr. Craig Garfield of Northwestern Medicine.

Doctor Garfield says his team worked around the clock to expand the use of an app that is now available for all NICU families at Prentice Women's Hospital. The smart “NICU to Home” app provides constant, detailed updates on the infants when parents cannot be by their side.

“For many parents this is a lifeline back to the NICU for their baby,” said Dr. Garfield.

For the George family, the app meant sleeping a little more soundly at home.

“It was great to keep track of your baby when you're away from her,” said mother Subin George.

The smartphone app is now being used for more education, especially for dads because a number of moms are testing positive for COVID-19.

“So now we have to figure out how do we make sure the dad feels comfortable taking care of the baby, while the mom may be sick and having to be quarantined,” Dr. Garfield said.

One bright spot, Doctor Garfield says, is COVID-19 does not seem to be badly affecting the babies. But it's certainly disrupted how the NICU operates.

“Let's say we didn't really cover this in medical school. I'll just say that,” Dr. Garfield said.

This app, funded by Friends of Prentice, is now being expanded to other Chicago area NICU's.