A Case Study of the Environmental Experience of a Hospitalized Newborn Infant With Complex Congenital Heart Disease

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Infants with complex congenital heart disease are at high risk for developmental delays. Although the etiology of these delays is multifactorial, the physical environment may be a contributory factor. Extensive studies have been conducted in neonatal intensive care units measuring environmental influences on development, resulting in policy and practice changes. Cardiothoracic intensive care units and cardiac step-down units are new environments in which newborns with heart disease receive care. No environmental studies have been conducted in units caring for newborn infants recovering from cardiac surgery.


The aim of this study is to examine the environmental experience of a newborn infant with heart disease after surgical intervention within the first month of life.


Measurements of illumination, sound levels, and sleep were recorded on 1 infant for 2 consecutive postoperative days in the cardiothoracic intensive care unit and 2 consecutive days in the step-down unit.


Although average daily noise exposure remained below recommended guidelines on 3 of 4 days, the infant experienced intermittent periods of excessive noise (≥55 dBA) during 59 of 87 hours and 110 episodes of acute noise events greater than 70 dBA. Average daily light exposure was below the recommended guidelines. However, light levels were more than twice the recommended levels at multiple points daily. For each of the 4 observation days, the infant experienced 66 to 102 awakenings during sleep, and sleep durations were less than 30 minutes 90% of the time.


This study provides the first report of potential environmental stressors in newborn infants cared for in cardiac specialty units. Excessive levels of light and noise as well as frequent interruptions for medical and nursing care may contribute to disorganized sleep and increased patient distress and may impact subsequent neurodevelopment. Studies are needed to identify potentially adverse aspects of the intensive caregiving environment for newborn infants who have undergone cardiac surgery.

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