I’m a NICU nurse, and here’s what I tell parents about caring for their NICU babies

If you have a baby in the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU), sometimes termed a ‘NICU baby’, you may feel completely overwhelmed. It’s important to know that you’re not alone. I won’t say I know how you feel since I’ve never personally gone through this, but I have taken care of many babies and their parents as a NICU nurse throughout the past 15 years. I’ve seen the journeys of various mamas firsthand. I’ve listened and let them vent, cry and share. I’ve talked with them and taught them how to care for their fragile babies. I’ve celebrated milestones and cheered them on as they were taking their babies home. Most importantly, I’ve advocated for them and their babies. 

So while I may not know exactly how you feel, I see you and I’m here to offer support by sharing ways that you can care for your NICU baby.

Although you might feel helpless if you have a child in the NICU, there are opportunities to get involved. Participating in your baby’s cares, such as talking to and holding them, is important. At the same time, caring for yourself is critical. After all, you’re that little one’s most important person.

Participate in baby’s cares

Aim to get involved in your baby’s care from the start. Your baby’s nurse knows what your baby can tolerate, so ask them what you can do. Changing diapers, taking their temperature and cleaning their face might not sound like a lot at first, but these small steps will gradually help you feel more comfortable. Communicate with the nurse about your baby’s care times, emphasizing that you would like to participate and do what you can. 

As your baby progresses throughout their NICU stay and becomes more stable, you will be the one providing the majority of their care if you wish to. This is a great way to help you feel more prepared when it’s time to take your baby home.

Talk, read or sing to your baby

While the NICU encourages a quiet environment, ask your nurse if your baby will tolerate being talked to in a soft voice. Your baby already knows your voice, so hearing that familiar sound is comforting to them. Talking, reading or singing to your baby are some good options. 

Personalize baby’s room

Ask about what you can bring to personalize your baby’s room or bed space. Even if the NICU is small and short on space, you can usually add photos or small decorations. One activity we always did in our NICU was designing a sign for each baby, which displayed their first name. This really customized the space and put a name to the sweet baby in “room 10” or “baby boy Smith”. If you’re crafty, look into scrapbooking or other fun ways to record and celebrate milestones. In addition to personalizing your baby’s environment in the NICU, you will have all of these momentos for their baby book when it’s time to go home.

Ask about kangaroo care

This all depends on your baby’s status. Once your baby is stable enough to be held, ask about kangaroo care. Kangaroo care is skin-to-skin contact that can be beneficial for parents and the baby. When your baby has tubes and wires, you may feel uncomfortable holding them. However, rest assured that your nurse will help with positioning the baby in a way that is comfortable for you both.

Feed your baby when they’re ready

Before your baby is ready to eat from a bottle or breastfeed, they may need to be fed through a tube. During this time, you can ask about non-nutritive breastfeeding. Your baby’s medical team will let you know when it’s safe for your baby to do this.

Once your baby can eat by mouth, you will be able to provide a bottle or breastfeed. If you’re ready, let the nurses know you want to be involved with this as much as possible.

Realize you need to care for yourself, too

I know you are overwhelmed, mama. I’ve seen many others feel this way over the years. Try to be gentle with yourself and remember that what you’re feeling is normal. It’s a good idea to communicate these feelings with your baby’s nurse or a social worker. 

Ask for support from family and friends, but don’t feel guilty about setting boundaries. If you’re not up for talking with them, be honest and say that you will reach out if you need anything.

Please do call to check in

You may feel guilty about not always being at your baby’s bedside, but you need to take care of yourself too. When you’re not there, call your baby’s nurse for updates. I always highly encouraged all parents of babies I took care of to call me. If they had been at the hospital all day with their baby, they would sometimes have to leave at night to tend to other children, get some sleep or handle other things. They couldn’t be with their baby 24/7 and I saw the pain in their faces and heard it in their voices every night they left. I would rather them call me throughout the night than be crying and stressing at home. 

If you’re worried about “bugging” your baby’s nurse, ask about some good times to call. I assure you they want you to feel comfortable calling whenever you’re unable to be in the NICU. Even on the most hectic shifts, I was never too busy to update a worrying mama in all of my 15 years. 

A note from Motherly

The NICU journey is a tough one, but you’re not alone. Aim to stay as active in your baby’s cares as possible during each stage of their NICU journey. You may feel helpless about being unable to fully care for your baby, but you are still the most important thing to them: You’re their mama.

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