Most parents don’t plan for their baby to be in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU) and in some cases you might not have much time to plan for it. But once you know your baby will have a long stay in the NICU, you will also need to consider someone else’s well-being: yours and your family’s.
If your baby is staying in the NICU for weeks or months, you’ll have to make some life adjustments. It can be an uncertain time but doing some logistical and emotional prep-work can improve your time in the NICU and allow you to focus on your baby.
Get to know your baby
Your baby will probably need a lot of care when they first get to the NICU, which can be unsettling. But trust the neonatal experts to provide care and focus on what you can control: bonding with your baby.
Depending on your baby’s condition, you might be limited on what you can do with your baby. Your care team will guide you on how you can get to know your baby — even under tough circumstances.
Here are some ways to bond with your baby in the NICU:
- Hold your baby’s hand or place your hand on their head. It’s best to not stroke your baby.
- Talk to your baby in a soothing, calm voice — you can read them stories or sing a lullaby.
- Participate in your baby’s care times by doing things like changing your baby’s diaper or checking their temperature. As your baby starts to get better you will be able to do more aspects of their care like bathing and feeding.
- Place a scent cloth, a small piece of cloth you wear on your skin to carry your scent, near your baby’s head to help them feel close to you.
- Rub lotion on your baby’s feet and legs and provide a gentle massage.
- When possible, hold your baby including skin-to-skin bonding.
Temporary housing for a NICU stay
The NICU is a great place for your baby to receive care if they are critically ill. But it’s no place to live. And if you don’t live close to the level of NICU your baby needs, traveling back and forth or living out of a NICU room can take a toll.
See if there is temporary family housing near your baby’s NICU. These facilities provide housing that’s more comfortable than a hospital or even a hotel, sometimes at no or low cost to families. Your baby’s NICU should be able to provide resources for temporary housing.
Learn how to get involved in your baby’s care
As a parent, you’re a partner in your baby’s care. This can be intimidating when they’re so small and fragile. You might not be able to care for them when they’re first born or if they have a serious illness.
As your baby gets better, your nurses will help you get more involved and make sure you feel comfortable. Providing basic care will strengthen your bond with your baby and prepare you to go home. In the NICU, you can help with:
- Holding and comforting your baby
- Giving medications
- Learning how to care for your baby using medical equipment, such as gastrostomy tubes, tracheostomy tubes and oxygen
Make your room your own
If you’ll be in the NICU or temporary housing for a while, bring items from home to make the space feel more like home. Even if you are staying in temporary housing, you’ll still spend a lot of time in your baby’s room. You might bring items like family photos or decorations, entertainment for yourself, a journal, or a favorite pillow or blanket.
It’s a small step but having familiar items around you will remind you of your life outside the NICU and help you picture your new baby in it.
Your main responsibility is your new baby. Delegate as many other tasks as you can and take friends and family up on offers to help.
If someone wants to help, and you would do the same for them in a similar situation, willingly accept their help. Try to welcome support for tasks like coordinating childcare for older siblings, checking on pets, house-sitting and preparing meals. Your family will be better for it.
Take care of yourself
You can’t care for your baby in the NICU if you don’t care for yourself. You’re still a person with needs, so remember to protect your mental well-being and do activities that you enjoy. Here are some self-care ideas from our team:
- Seek mental health support within your NICU or talk to the hospital chaplain.
- Talk with your family about how they’re feeling through this experience.
- Plan regular family activities.
- Exercise when you can.
- Eat a balanced diet.
- Take breaks from the NICU, even if it’s just a walk outside.
- Connect with the NICU’s social workers, who can help provide emotional support and additional resources.
Celebrate milestones in the NICU
If your baby has a serious medical condition, they’ll probably have a lot of firsts in the NICU: the first time they recognize you, their first smile or laugh and even their first blowout. These memories aren’t any less important just because they didn’t happen how or where you expected. They might be even more memorable or meaningful based on what you and your baby have been through.
Celebrate as many milestones as you want. Take pictures and soak in the moment.
Hopefully, you’ll be able to look back on these moments with your child many years down the road much more fondly than you might expect.