What to Expect in the NICU

If your newborn needs to spend time in the hospital neonatal intensive care unit (NICU), it can feel frightening and overwhelming. It helps to arm yourself with information and support. 

If you haven’t already, ask to meet more of the NICU staff. These are some of the key players:

  • Neonatologist – This pediatrician (with extra training in the treatment of sick and/or premature infants) will oversee your baby’s care and supervise all others who interact with your child.
     
  • Dieticians – They will develop tailor-made nutrition plans for your baby to optimize his or her development.
     
  • Neonatal nurses  They’re specially trained and provide 24-hour care for your baby. These nurses are your best source of support and information. Work closely with them to get all of your concerns and questions answered.
Why Your Baby Is in the NICU

Among the most common reasons for a stay in the NICU are:

  • Prematurity (the most common reason) – Babies born at less than 37 weeks gestation often end up in the NICU because they aren’t physically or developmentally mature enough to transition outside the womb.
     
  • Low birth weight  Babies born weighing under 5 pounds, 8 ounces often have a hard time staying warm and may have low oxygen levels at birth.
     
  • Respiratory distress – Newborns (often premature) can have trouble breathing and delivering oxygen to their organs.
How Long Will This Go On?

How long your baby stays in the NICU (ranging from days to months) depends on his or her individual condition and progress. Educate yourself by knowing what NICU equipment your baby might need and why, such as:

  • Infant warmers  Small, open beds with heaters over them to keep babies warm during monitoring
     
  • Chest leads – Small stickers on the baby’s chest with wires attached to monitors that track heartbeats and breathing
     
  • Feeding tubes  If your baby isn’t able to feed on his or her own, this tube (placed in the nose or mouth) enables him or her to get nutrition.

Parents are encouraged to stay with their babies in the NICU when they are medically stable. The NICU staff will welcome input on your baby’s care.

Many moms can breastfeed or bottle feed their little ones, or even hold them skin to skin for quality bonding time. You may also be allowed to personalize your baby’s area with items such as picture or a couple stuffed animals.  

Sometimes, a NICU infant will need surgery or intense, specialized medical care, and these can be scary times for parents. Ask questions, lean on the nurses for support and hope. Lean on each other and know that your baby is getting the care he or she needs.

Taking Care of YOU

Make sure you take care of yourself during this time:

  • Lean on friends and family for support and down-time.
     
  • Set up a schedule so that you and your partner each get some rest and spend time away from the NICU.
     
  • Accept practical help from friends for things such as household chores (since you will likely be spending your time with your baby).

See also ... 

  Caring for a premature baby – great info from the American Academy of Pediatrics

Disclaimer: This page is not intended to provide medical advice about your child. Always seek the advice of a physician, qualified healthcare provider or child-development specialist with any questions you have about your child's health, medical condition or development. Never disregard, avoid or delay contacting a doctor or other qualified professional because of something you read here.

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