Palliative care for premature babies

Mom holding preemie 
To "palliate" means to relieve. Palliative care is care designed to make a baby with a life-limiting condition as comfortable and symptom-free as possible when it's clear that further treatment aimed at cure is neither possible nor effective.

Historically, palliative care has been thought of as end-of-life treatment. However, this form of intensive, active care, aimed at the relief of physical and emotional symptoms, can be beneficial to the child and family from the time of diagnosis of a life-limiting illness.

Palliative care embraces the baby as a whole, taking into consideration physical, emotional, spiritual, and social needs, along with the needs of the family. Palliative care involves relief from pain and other symptoms that may have developed. A variety of professionals, including nurses, doctors, and social workers, have expertise in palliative care.

When will you need to consider palliative care?

Palliative care enters into your discussion with the doctor when the goal of treatment is no longer focused on curing a condition but on care that maximizes your baby's quality of life and ensures your baby is as comfortable as possible. Depending on the type and severity of your baby's condition, palliative care may quickly turn into end-of-life care, where the death may be days or even hours away.

Where is palliative care provided?

In many cases premature babies will remain in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit or NICU during palliative and end-of-life care. Other options that you can explore with your baby’s doctor include a community hospital closer to your home, or home itself. Your baby’s doctor can provide more information on the resources available for each option.

Who organizes palliative care?

Palliative care is generally organized by a team of professionals in a hospital's palliative care service. The palliative care service will work with your baby’s NICU team to deliver the necessary care.

Christine Newman, MD, FRCPC

Lori A. Ives-Baine, RN, BScN