So your baby is in the NICU and you’re wondering… What can I do to feel more involved in my baby’s care?
If you’re like many NICU parents, you might feel as if you’re more like visitors or bystanders than parents, and that’s no good. Because babies need their parents, and you need to remember just how vitally important you are, every day, to your baby.
It’s true that babies in the NICU need medical and nursing care that is specialized and technical. But babies NEED their parents, and there are definitely plenty of activities you can jump in and start doing while your little one is in the NICU. Some of them actually can begin very soon.
And I really hope you will!
I know it can be scary. If you’re feeling nervous or reluctant, keep in mind that it’s very common for parents to say things like:
My baby is too fragile
The nurses do it better
I think I’m hurting my baby
I’m no good at any of it
But I’m here to tell you that it’s important to get started as soon as you are able. The longer you wait, the more you’ll let yourself feel distant, hesitant and afraid. You are the parent and these are parenting tasks.
Nobody’s expecting you to know how to deal with all the NICU equipment and stuff right away, so ask for and expect plenty of help.
If the nurses haven’t asked you to get involved but you feel ready to try, say so. Because this is your baby, you have every right to do as much as you can, and NICU nurses are really good at teaching new parents how to do the things their baby needs.
Here are a few things parents can typically do:
The most basic parenting chore is changing a baby’s diaper, so it can feel especially sad to watch others doing this for your baby. But you can get involved and start diaper changes, often quite early! Yes, it might take a lot of patience learning because there are wires, tubes and attention to your baby’s position. But it’s not rocket science and you can be taught!
This is probably the easiest first activity to do. Your nurses can show you how very early on.
Kangaroo Care (AKA skin-to-skin holding)
Skin to skin holding is critically important for both the baby and the parents, so ask to get started with this as soon as possible. Research is clear, time and again, that this simple and comforting practice has many really important benefits. If you haven’t been told about it or offered this, be sure to speak up and ask when you can start. And I’d suggest you should keep doing skin to skin holding as long as you can, throughout your entire NICU stay and even after. It’s that good!(1)
“Rounds” are when the entire NICU team discusses your baby’s plan of care. Ask your nurses if parents can be present for rounds at your NICU. Some hospitals round every day, some just once a week. But if parents can participate, it’s very empowering to be involved in the in-depth discussions about your baby.
Bathe Your Baby
Whether it’s starting with a very quick, gentle sponge bath for a more fragile newborn, or a full-on tub bath for an older, more stable baby, it’s a parent favorite. Definitely let your nurses know if you want to do a bath, or else they may bathe your baby without realizing you wanted to be there. And don’t forget to take pictures - baby bath pictures are the best! If it’s your first time bathing your baby, be sure to grab our deck of NICU Milestone Cards to celebrate this big achievement!
Feed Your Baby
This is the most obvious activity that parents are included in on a regular basis. If you’re breastfeeding, I highly recommend that you ask for the help of a lactation consultant if one is available. And when your baby is taking a bottle, you’ll probably need to observe a nurse feeding your baby once or twice so she can show you some simple but important techniques, because preemies and sicker newborns tend to have more difficulty with feeding. But once you’ve got the hang of it, you’ll be a pro!
Comfort Your Baby During Uncomfortable Procedures
When your baby needs one of the many unfortunately uncomfortable NICU procedures, from a heelstick for lab samples to suctioning a ventilator tube, you can provide the comfort of your voice and your touch to help your baby through the rough spots. In fact, research is showing that painful procedures are much less painful to infants when they’re held and/or being breastfed, so you could even suggest that to your nurses. (2,3)
Weigh your baby
Some NICUs weigh the babies when most parents aren’t visiting (like at 4 am!), but if weighing happens during a time when you’re there, ask if you can help be a part of that.
If your NICU has anyone able to teach you gentle infant massage, it can be a super relaxing bonding activity that you’ll both love.
If your baby has physical therapy activities, be sure to ask that you get trained on how to perform them with your baby.
There are many more ways to be an active and involved parent, and I’d love to hear your thoughts about them. What else did you do in the NICU that helped you bond and helped you feel more like a parent and less like a visitor or bystander?