Trauma-informed care in the newborn intensive care unit: promoting safety, security and connectedness

J Perinatol. 2018 Jan;38(1):3-10. doi: 10.1038/jp.2017.124. Epub 2017 Aug 17.


Both babies and their parents may experience a stay in the newborn intensive care unit (NICU) as a traumatic or a 'toxic stress,' which can lead to dysregulation of the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis and ultimately to poorly controlled cortisol secretion. Toxic stresses in childhood or adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) are strongly linked to poor health outcomes across the lifespan and trauma-informed care is an approach to caregiving based on the recognition of this relationship. Practitioners of trauma-informed care seek to understand clients' or patients' behaviors in light of previous traumas they have experienced, including ACEs. Practitioners also provide supportive care that enhances the client's or patient's feelings of safety and security, to prevent their re-traumatization in a current situation that may potentially overwhelm their coping skills. This review will apply the principles of trauma-informed care, within the framework of the Polyvagal Theory as described by Porges, to care for the NICU baby, the baby's family and their professional caregivers, emphasizing the importance of social connectedness among all. The Polyvagal Theory explains how one's unconscious awareness of safety, danger or life threat (neuroception) is linked through the autonomic nervous system to their behavioral responses. A phylogenetic hierarchy of behaviors evolved over time, leveraging the mammalian ventral or 'smart' vagal nucleus into a repertoire of responses promoting mother-baby co-regulation and the sense of safety and security that supports health and well-being for both members of the dyad. Fostering social connectedness that is mutual and reciprocal among parents, their baby and the NICU staff creates a critical buffer to mitigate stress and improve outcomes of both baby and parents. Using techniques of trauma-informed care, as explained by the Polyvagal Theory, with both babies and their parents in the NICU setting will help to cement a secure relationship between the parent-infant dyad, redirecting the developmental trajectory toward long-term health and well-being of the baby and all family members.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Adaptation, Psychological
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Infant, Newborn
  • Intensive Care Units, Neonatal / organization & administration*
  • Intensive Care, Neonatal / methods*
  • Intensive Care, Neonatal / psychology
  • Kangaroo-Mother Care Method / psychology*
  • Mothers / psychology*
  • Parent-Child Relations
  • Pregnancy
  • Stress, Psychological / nursing*