15 things you should know when you have a baby in the NICU

As a NICU nurse, I have first-hand experience helping babies and parents.  I would like to share these tips you should know if your baby is in the NICU.

1 – Don’t beat yourself up.

Unless you have an addiction problem, there is a very good chance that this was NOT YOUR FAULT. Don’t beat yourself up. Focus your energy on being your baby’s advocate.

2 – As nurses, we love your children like they are our own.

Sometimes we get very protective of our tiny little patients and so this may be misinterpreted as rude or insensitive. Know that we are fighting for your baby and have your baby’s best interests at heart.

3 – Get to know the nurses, doctors, and therapists that are taking care of your baby.

They are the ones that will get to know your baby very well and be the ones that catch the small changes that can be signs that something is changing with your baby’s health.

4 – Ask your NICU if they do primary nursing.

A primary nurse is an advocate for your baby when you can’t be there. Primary nursing gives you and your baby the opportunity to get consistent care. Besides you, nobody will know your baby better than those primary nurses. If your NICU has primary nursing, find nurses that you get along with and trust to sign up as a primary nurse for your baby. If the NICU doesn’t have primary nursing, find out if they have other programs that could benefit you and your baby while you’re in their care.

5 – Don’t be afraid to ask to hold your baby.

I cannot put enough emphasis on this! It seems scary initially, especially if they have a breathing tube and multiple lines hooked up to them, but it is critical for their development and for your bonding. There are many nurses and respiratory therapists that can assist with safely transferring your baby to you. Kangaroo care (holding your baby skin to skin) helps with suck, swallow, and breathe when they are stable enough to begin feeding. It also helps with mom’s milk production and helps them regulate their own temperature and heart rates. There are occasions that it will not be possible to hold your baby because of their instability, but you can still change their diaper, check their temperature, hold their hand, sing to them, touch them, be close to them, spend time with them, and love them. Although you may not be able to hold them right away, ask to hold that baby as soon as and as often as you can. Ask your baby’s healthcare team how you can do this.

6 – Ask how you can be involved with your baby.

Your NICU baby is incredibly fragile and needs all the touch, love, smell, and interaction that a regular baby needs, but in smaller and less aggressive ways. Your baby’s neurological system and brain are still developing at a rapid pace so remember to be very gentle. Ask the nurses how best to interact with your premature baby. They are experts at this and are there to teach you. If you have other children at home or live out of town and can’t come to the NICU as often as you would like, you can get special permission for aunties or uncles to come and hold your baby. Also, most NICUs let healthy grandparents visit without mom or dad present, and grandparents are usually more than happy to come and hold your baby. It is no surprise that babies who have consistent family interaction at the bedside often do much better in the long run.

7 – Do your best to be at the bedside during rounds.

Rounds are when the medical team (doctor, nutritionist, respiratory therapist, and nurse) discusses your baby’s plan of care. If you are present during rounds, you have access to the medical team and can ask them your questions. This will help you understand what is going on with your baby.

8 – Write your questions down when you think of them.

The NICU and all the medical words can be incredibly overwhelming, and sometimes your questions can be forgotten or lost in all the chaos. Write your questions down and ask them during rounds. If you ask your questions during rounds, you are getting the most up to date and accurate answers.

9 – Be patient.

Your baby’s health and future is at stake. It is difficult to have a baby in the NICU and not at home with you, but don’t push for your baby to go home before they are ready. A premature baby has to prove that they are ready to graduate from the NICU (your nurse can tell you the requirements before your baby can go home). Also, when you bring your baby home, be an overprotective parent. For the first year of life, be vigilant about people washing their hands before holding your baby, and avoid letting people kiss your baby on the face. Do not expose your baby to individuals who are sick. It will save your baby from repeated admissions to the hospital.

10 – In an emergency, we are not ignoring you.

As medical professionals, in an emergency situation we are focusing on saving your baby’s or another baby’s life. Consequently, during these emergencies, we don’t communicate as well with the parents as we could. Try to remember that we are focusing on saving a baby’s life and that once we have stabilized the situation, we will be happy to speak to you and answer all of your questions.

11 – Get to know the other parents in the NICU.

It helps relieve stress when you can speak to someone else who is going through a similar situation. Many times these other parents will become your life-long friends and your support when times are tough.

12 – Let family and friends help you.

This will be a physically, intellectually, and emotionally exhausting experience. Let people watch your other kids so that you can visit your baby. Let people bring you dinner or clean your house if you don’t have the time or the energy. Take care of yourself by resting, healing, eating healthy, and drinking plenty of water so that you can avoid getting sick and can be there for your baby.

13 – Ask your healthcare provider for information about breastmilk and the benefits for your baby.

Your healthcare providers can help you understand the options and resources available and how they may benefit you and your baby.

14 – If you are ill, STAY HOME.

As hard as this is, your baby and many other babies in the NICU are extremely fragile with immature immune systems. A cold to you or me means a breathing tube and a breathing machine for a premature baby and a backwards health spiral. DON’T RISK IT! You can still call to check on your baby and some NICUs are even equipped to do FaceTime. Ask your nurse how you can stay connected when you are unable to be there.

15 – Remember that this is YOUR baby.

Ask questions – 100 times if you need to. Come to the NICU as often as possible and spend time with your baby. Hold your baby, sing to them, get to know them, and speak up for them when you feel something isn’t right. GET INVOLVED and STAY INVOLVED. You are the one taking this baby home and nobody should know this baby better than you. Invest your time so that your baby has a bright future.