Secrets from the NICU : Experts Share Their Top Tips

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Knowing what to expect can help you feel less afraid.

The neonatal care unit (NICU) is where sick babies go for many reasons, from being born too early to having a birth defect. Should your little one end up there, knowing what to expect can help you feel less afraid. We asked the experts for their insider tips on how you can help your baby feel more comfortable—and also take care of yourself—as you prepare for a healthy and happy homecoming. Here, their smart suggestions.

Know that your presence matters.

Parents might feel as though their baby doesn’t really need them because there are so many medical staffers attending to his needs, such as adjusting breathing tubes and IVs,” says Lisa Schepper, NP, who specializes in neonatal care and works at Riley Hospital for Children at Indiana University Health. “ But I’d like parents to know that your baby really does need you there to talk to him, touch him, and, if you can, hold him. In fact, it’s proven that babies have shorter stays when they get kangaroo care, or regular skin-on-skin contact, with their caregivers.” Holding your baby to your bare chest helps soothe him because he can smell your skin and hear your heartbeat. “Doing this helps regulate the baby’s body temperature and allows him to go into a much more restorative, deeper sleep,” explains Schepper. “If mom or dad can hold him like this for two-and-a-half to three hours at a time, a few times a day, that’s ideal.”

Don’t feel guilty when you need to rest.

While being around for your baby is important, taking care of yourself is just as important, says Schepper. After all, if you’re exhausted, how will you be able to best care for your newborn? One silver lining of your baby being in the NICU is that you can go to bed and get a solid block of interrupted sleep. This will lower stress and help you have more energy to focus on your baby. If you’re worried about leaving your son or daughter, ask a nurse about recording your voice and playing it for your newborn while you’re away.

Be your baby’s advocate.

Though you may feel like the experts know best, you are the parent and the authority on your baby—and an important part of his care team. So, don’t be afraid to ask the medical team questions. “At Riley, we encourage parents to ask for conferences where multiple specialists, such as neonatologist and respiratory therapists, are available,” says Ulrike Mietzsch, MD, co-director of the NeuroNICU at Riley Hospital for Children at Indiana University Health. Parents are also encouraged to be present if possible for the daily morning rounds, where the nurse gives an update to the doctors about how the baby is doing, nutrition recommendations, and what tests, if any, may be needed. “It’s a good idea to keep a notebook handy to write your questions so you don’t forget when the doctors are present.”

Get some support.

Even though there are often many people milling around, being in the NICU can feel lonely. That’s why connecting with other parents who may be going through something similar to what you’re experiencing can help you feel less alone. The NICU often offers parent support groups for this reason. “Support groups may not be for everyone, but we also offer art and other classes, such as scrapbooking, to help parents get their minds off the beeping monitors and test reports,” says Schepper. You can also connect with other parents and find out about online education, hear stories, and even learn about a companion app through the NICU Nest resource site by visiting  

Seek out financial advice.

Depending on your baby’s length of stay and type of health insurance plan, being in the NICU can rack up some hefty bills. To help you navigate the system so you can worry less about finances and more about focusing on your baby, ask about assistance with sorting through expenses, filling out forms, and seeing if you qualify for additional aid. “We have two financial advisors on staff who do nothing else but help parents sort through the financial aspects,” says Dr. Mietzsch.

Take advantage of the classes and services.

A surprising thing many parents discover about the NICU is that it often offers services to help you be as prepared as possible for life at home with baby. In addition to basic parenting classes that teach important skills such as how to swaddle or infant CPR classes, there may be specialty classes on how to care for babies with special needs, such as diabetes or lactation consultants to help you get the hang of breast-feeding.

-- By Holly C. Corbett

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