Purpose of review
Over 300 000 infants are hospitalized in a neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) in the United States annually during a developmental period critical to later neurobehavioral function. Environmental exposures during the fetal period and infancy have been shown to impact long-term neurobehavioral outcomes. This review summarizes evidence linking NICU-based environmental exposures to neurodevelopmental outcomes of children born preterm.
Preterm infants experience multiple exposures important to neurodevelopment during the NICU hospitalization. The physical layout of the NICU, management of light and sound, social interactions with parents and NICU staff, and chemical exposures via medical equipment are important to long-term neurobehavioral outcomes in this highly vulnerable population.
Existing research documents NICU-based exposure to neurotoxic chemicals, aberrant light, excess sound, and restricted social interaction. In total, this creates an environment of co-existing excesses (chemicals, light, sound) and deprivation (touch, speech). The full impact of these co-exposures on the long-term neurodevelopment of preterm infants has not been adequately elucidated. Research into the importance of the NICU from an environmental health perspective is in its infancy, but could provide understanding about critical modifiable factors impacting the neurobehavioral health of hundreds of thousands of children each year.