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Child Life Corner: Preparing Parents for the NICU

Blog Child Life Corner: Preparing Parents for the NICU

About 15 percent of all deliveries result in a NICU stay—and the NICU can be an overwhelming place for parents. Here are some helpful tips.


 Karen Hufford

As a Child Life Specialist, it’s my job to support patients and their families daily. My name is Karen Hufford and I have the privilege of being the Child Life Specialist in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU) at Methodist Hospital, a unit of Riley Hospital for Children at Indiana University Health. 

Our NICU team is comprised of neonatologists, house staff physicians, nurses, social workers, physical, speech and occupational therapists, and other support staff. We all work hard to ensure the best care for every tiny patient we encounter.

NICUs provide care for premature and critically ill babies. About 15 percent of all deliveries result in a NICU stay—and the NICU can be an overwhelming place for parents. That said, here are some helpful tips:

  • Be present as much as possible.  Remember, your baby needs you, for skin-to skin bonding, also known as kangaroo care.  It has been proven that babies have shorter NICU stays if parents do skin to skin often for 2 to 3 hours at a time. When baby is held to your bare chest, it helps soothe him because he can smell you and feels the rhythm of your heart beat. This helps to regulate a baby's body temperature, and allows him to go to a deeper, more restorative sleep. When mom does skin to skin, it stimulates breast milk production. There are many ways the staff will show you to bond with your baby if you are present as often as possible. And for the times mom can't be there, our team soothes and comforts infants to help them build trust and feel secure. 
  • Share your story with the staff. NICU nurses have years of experience caring for families with situations similar to yours. You are not alone. Our social workers can also listen, help with family communication, provide meal passes, arrange transportation or organize a care conference with key staff to discuss your baby's care plan. They can also provide items you may need for the baby after you go home.
  • Let the NICU nurses educate you. They are experts in infant care. They can show you how to sterilize and make up bottles of formula, how to bathe your baby and care for their skin. When he is ready, the nurses can show you how to swaddle him and help him feel secure.  They can teach you how to pick up your baby's cues, so you can tell when he wants to be held, when he is hungry and when he is tired and wants to sleep. The nurses can also provide education on infant CPR and how to correctly install the car seat. If there are special medical needs, they will make sure you know how to care for your child at home and have the right equipment. 
  • Collect keepsakes or create a journal. Weekly pictures are taken by the NICU Nest staff, and can show the progress made-when some tubes are no longer needed and you see baby's cheeks filling in as weight is gained. By keeping a journal you can document milestones, the first time you held your baby, first bath, when oxygen was removed. When you look back, you will realize how far you and your baby have both come.
  • Remember this time will pass. Ultimately, you will get to go home with your baby and you will realize the NICU is where your story first began. Miracles happen every day. Nowhere do we see that more than a NICU unit.  

-- By Karen Hufford, CCLS
   Certified Child Life Specialist

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