How to manage your child’s NICU stay

Your baby is in the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU). How can you cope with stress of baby being in the NICU?

Your baby has been admitted to the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) at the hospital. There is a dedicated team working together to care for your child, and there’s no lack of services to help you get through the process of having a baby in the NICU, including pastoral care. But how do you cope with the stresses of your baby being in the NICU, even if you expected it?

NICU stays happen to a lot of families

When you are in the throes of having a loved one in the hospital, it can feel like no one else could understand what you’re going through. However, as many as 10% of newborns end up in the NICU. The majority of those are due to being born before 35 weeks or weighing less than 5 pounds. The NICU admits full-term babies as well, depending on certain factors.

Bottom line: You’re not alone. Many moms and dads have gone through this, and you can, too.

If you can, plan for it

The need for a NICU stay may come as a surprise after a baby’s birth for some parents. However, if you learn during the course of your pregnancy that there is an issue that may make a NICU stay more likely, it can help you plan. Talk with your OB/GYN or maternal-fetal medicine specialist to help you make decisions about the level of care your child may need from a NICU, in addition to any other specialty services your baby may need. You also can ask to visit the NICU at the hospital you’re considering for your delivery. This way, you may feel more prepared, and the experience may be less stressful if your baby is moved into the NICU.

Get to know your NICU team to build trust

A specialized team works together in the NICU to help children during their stay. You may meet neonatologists, nurse practitioners, nurses, respiratory therapists, lactation consultants, dietitians and pharmacists. This is your team. They expect questions and understand the tremendous concern and worry you may experience. If you’ve asked a question once, don’t be afraid to ask again, especially if you feel unsure or confused.

Getting to know the team, especially nurses, can help you during a lengthy stay by building trust that endures as you weather the ups and downs your baby may go through.

“A lot can change for a baby in the course of a day, with little to no warning,” said Ketan C. Mehta, M.D., neonatologist with Norton Children’s Neonatology. “Having trust in your baby’s care team can help families during these moments. If the team seems calm, you should be too, even though the monitors may be beeping loudly and there’s a lot of movement.”

There are good days and bad days in the NICU; talk to your child’s doctors about how you’re feeling. Often, providers can help families focus on the “big picture” rather than the minor ups and downs that sometimes cause stress.

Due to the amount of time and trust built up during lengthy stays, it’s not uncommon for lifelong bonds to form between staff and the families in the NICU.

Know your role at the right time

Each child’s NICU journey is different –– and your role during that time is dependent on where your child is medically. We understand that you want to hold your child as soon as possible –– but until the baby is medically stable, you may be able only to touch or hold hands. You can hold a child who’s become medically stable. Such skin-to-skin bonding has been shown to help babies with weight gain and breastfeeding.

Feeding is another practice that may have to wait until a baby is medically ready. A baby’s sucking reflex doesn’t develop until 34 weeks of gestation. If a child is born earlier, a feeding tube may be used. However, talk to your team. You may be able to pump breast milk to maintain a supply that can be used when baby is ready. Once your baby shows feeding cues, you can try breastfeeding or bottle.

One of the biggest roles you have is to protect your baby from germs. Good hygiene practices can help not only your baby but others in the NICU stay healthy as they heal and grow. Here are some tips:

  • Practice regular hand-washing, especially before touching or holding a baby.
  • Keep any sick loved ones away from baby, including yourself.
  • Make sure you and any family members are up to date on vaccines, including the flu shot.

Norton Children’s offers Level IV and Level III NICUs

Learn more

Finally, take care of you

A NICU stay is a marathon, not a sprint. It can be a long process, and while it’s good to celebrate milestones each day with baby and the team, you need to make time for yourself. Postpartum depression can be an issue, especially when dealing with an ill newborn in the NICU.  If you’re feeling unusually blue after giving birth, talk with your OB/GYN, especially if you’re having signs of depression. Additionally, make sure you’re eating, sleeping and doing things that help recharge your battery so you’ll be as ready as possible for baby to come home. It’s possible your child may have extra needs at home after leaving the NICU. So take this time to take care of yourself and perhaps prepare your home for baby’s arrival.

Additionally, the NICUs at Norton Children’s Hospital and Norton Women’s & Children’s Hospital offer NicView, a camera system placed near your baby that allows you to view a secure live video stream of your baby. You can monitor your baby from any computer, smartphone or tablet with an internet connection. That way, you can remain connected to your baby while you make time for yourself or any other kids, because life keeps moving forward outside of the NICU.