The neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) is one of those places parents hope they never need but are grateful it’s available if they do. Nothing can ever fully prepare you if your child needs the specialized technology and advanced medical care the NICU provides, but knowing what to expect can help ease some fears.
What is the NICU?
Most babies born premature or who need help for other reasons, such as low blood sugar levels or breathing problems, come to the NICU.
Newborns in NICU nurseries receive round-the-clock care from a multidisciplinary team of experts, including:
- Neonatologists, who are pediatricians specially trained to care for newborns
- Neonatal nurse practitioners
- Physical, occupational and respiratory therapists
- Lactation consultants
- Other medical specialists and skilled professional staff
How do I bond with my baby?
Bonding can be a challenge when your baby is in the NICU, but your care providers will help you overcome obstacles, said Vijay Nama, MD, a neonatologist on the medical staff at Baylor University Medical Center at Dallas, part of Baylor Scott & White Health.
Reading to your baby and cuddling with skin-to-skin contact promotes brain development and provides comfort and security—especially for premature infants.
If your baby is healthy enough, skin-to-skin contact helps maintain your infant’s body temperature and reduce stress. Breast milk is another important factor, if possible for you and your baby.
“Breast milk is life-saving medicine for our babies,” Dr. Nama said. “Those who get breast milk from their moms go home sooner and are healthier overall.”
Families are at the heart of every NICU and NICU staff understands how badly you want to spend time with your little one. Be sure and check whether the NICU has specific visiting hours.
When can my baby leave the NICU?
Your baby’s care team will provide specific goals for your baby while in the NICU. These may include:
- Breathing goals, such as being off oxygen
- Feeding goals, such as bottle-feeding or breastfeeding
- Regulating body temperature
- Reaching a specific weight
- Consistent heart rate
- Car seat test
“Your baby has to be able to breathe without any respiratory support, take adequate breast or bottle feeds, and maintain body temperature outside the incubator to be able to go home from the NICU,” Dr. Nama said.
If breathing help is needed, your baby might be put on extra oxygen with a mask or a breathing machine. Environmental and nutritional support will help meet the warmth requirement.
“Premature babies typically need to add body mass to stay warm in an open room,” Dr. Nama said.
How long your baby stays in the NICU depends on their condition and how well they respond to treatment. Rest assured, the NICU care team is there to support your family and make sure your baby gets the best start in life.
Questions about what to expect during delivery? Get the answers you need for a safe and healthy delivery.