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How to Care for Your Baby in the NICU

The birth of a baby can be one of the most exciting times for your family. But, having your newborn spend time in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU) is far from what you had envisioned. Whether your baby is born prematurely or requires highly specialized care in the NICU, it can be stressful, exhausting and anxiety-inducing experience for any new parent.

If you and your loved one find yourself visiting your newborn in the NICU instead of heading home together, here are some tips to help you navigate the NICU and support your baby.

Communicating with the care team

Every day, your baby’s care team – typically neonatologists, neonatal nurse practitioners, bedside nurses, respiratory therapists, developmental specialists, neonatal therapists, lactation consultants – will meet to discuss your little one. You are encouraged to participate in rounds to learn more about your baby’s progress, medical updates and ongoing plan of care. This is also an excellent time to ask questions and share any concerns you have and learn any policies unique to the NICU.

If you cannot be physically present when the team rounds, your baby’s nurse can also provide updates.

“You can always call the NICU for updates or ask that a provider call you after rounds,” said Ramya Kumar, a Banner Health speech language pathologist in pediatric rehabilitation services.

Understand your baby’s care

The NICU is filled with medical equipment and medical jargon. It is perfectly OK to ask the medical team to repeat information or simplify the terms they use so you can follow your baby’s progress.

“We have the best of intentions, but sometimes have to be reminded that not everyone can understand the abbreviations and terms that we use,” Kumar said. “Do not be afraid to tell us if you don’t understand. Asking questions helps us help you. Also, feel free to tell us how you learn best. Some of us do better with a video or picture, while others do better reading a handout.”

Bond with your baby

Skin-to-skin or kangaroo care—holding the baby on your bare chest while they just wear a diaper—is crucial to the development of your baby. Kangaroo care helps your baby stay warm, gain weight, sleep better and stay organized and regulated and can be done by mother or father. Your baby knows your smell, and this can be very comforting. Skin-to-skin can also help with your breastmilk supply and decrease stress hormones.

“We love the babies we care for, but we realize this is your baby,” Kumar said. “We want you to have every possible opportunity to love, nurture and grow your precious little ones. Whether it’s helping give a bath or sharing your feeding goals, we want you involved and bonding.”

Celebrate milestones

Depending on how long your baby may need the specialized care of a NICU, you may experience several milestones. These are huge victories that are a testament to your baby’s resilience and your impact on their development. Celebrate them like you would if they were at home! You may see your NICU nurses create posters, bedside cards and announcements celebrating these big moments. These can be empowering and inspiring and help you see baby’s amazing progress.

Keep your baby healthy

Babies in the NICU are vulnerable and more at risk for infections. An easy way to avoid this is to make sure that you wash your hands and any visitors wash theirs well as soon as you enter the unit and after activities like changing your baby’s diaper. Your NICU will have specific processes in place for hand hygiene. Some NICUs may also have a process in place for cleaning your cell phones with special wipes or placing it in a baggie to lower infection risk.

If you, other family members or siblings don’t feel well, please let your nurse know. It can be very difficult emotionally to stay away from your baby while you are sick but be assured that your baby will be in the best of hands while you take care of yourself and heal.

Bring your baby home

This is an exciting time! You can finally see the light at the end of the tunnel. Whether you spent a couple of days or several months in the NICU, this can be another time of mixed emotions. You’re ready, but you’re understandably nervous.

While we would love to tag along and continue care for your baby, the reality is you are more than ready. The time you spent in the NICU participating in your baby’s development, bonding with them and learning their feeding cues has prepared you for this moment.

Despite what we say, it is very natural to feel some pangs of anxiety. Here are some things you can ask about before bringing baby home:

  • Parent Education/Discharge Classes: These classes typically include topics like infant CPR, car seat safety, safe sleep practices, taking care of your infant during Respiratory Syncytial Virus (RSV) season and more.
  • Nesting Rooms: Nesting rooms or homeward bound rooms help you spend a whole day caring for your baby like you would at home. They are off their monitors and you spend the night there – feeding, changing diapers and practicing safe sleep techniques. Your nurse is a call away if you need help, but you’re mainly on your own.
  • Follow-up Development Care: The social work and case management team will work with you throughout the stay to identify what community supports your baby will need. This is a great time to ask more questions to understand everything that is in place. Just like the NICU, the world outside is filled with jargon and acronyms that can be confusing. Take notes and keep a binder with everything that is pertinent to your baby’s care.

At any time during your baby’s stay in the NICU, if you have concerns or questions, don’t hesitate to speak with your baby’s medical team. They are there for you every step of the way.

To locate a health care provider for your baby or information on pregnancy and babies, visit:

Children's Health Parenting Pregnancy