Visit any NICU around the country, and you’ll see a whole lot of babies who seem to be undressed, unswaddled, and you may wonder - why is this so? We all know babies need to be kept snuggly and warm, right? Rest assured, those bare babies are being kept nice & warm! The types of beds where you’ll find babies undressed are either radiant warmers or incubators. Radiant warmers are beds open to air, with low, collapsible sides, and a heater element up above the baby. These are important when the NICU staff need to have hands on the baby frequently, like soon after delivery while baby is being stabilized, and when the baby needs equipment that won’t fit into a regular crib or incubator. Incubators (also called Isolettes) are the clear plexiglass boxes in which the babies are completely enclosed. These are important for babies who can’t maintain their own body temperature without using up too many calories, often preemies, and for babies who need the quiet and stillness that the incubator provides.
Both of these beds have temperature controls that you’ll see if you look for them. A thin, flexible wire is secured to the baby’s skin, usually on the tummy under a gold foil sticker, and this wire reads the baby’s skin temperature. That way, the machine knows how much or how little warmth to provide for the baby to keep his temperature exactly where it needs to be. If the baby is getting even a little bit cool, the heater kicks in so the baby can’t ever use up too much energy keeping himself warm. When baby is warm enough, the heater turns off so he doesn't get too warm.
But, still, you may wonder why wouldn’t we dress them anyway? Babies look cuter all swaddled and snuggled, in all those cute prints and colors their parents want to see them in. And wouldn't it help keep them warm?
Actually, there are many important reasons. Basically, NICU babies are NICU babies for some reason, and that means there is something the nurses and doctors are watching closely:
- If the baby is having breathing problems, we’ll need to watch the baby's chest closely.
- If they’re having problems with digestion or feedings, we may need to watch the baby's abdomen.
- If the baby has an IV, clothing and swaddling may be too risky, firstly because the clothing may knock out the IV, and secondly coverings may make it impossible to watch the IV for leaking or coming loose.
- Babies with jaundice need their skin exposed to the theraputic lights of phototherapy.
These are just a few of the many reasons the staff may keep babies undressed and unswaddled while they’re in the NICU.
Now, I hope the next time you visit a NICU and see a sweet little one looking exposed and naked, you’ll rest assured that the baby is being kept nice and warm, exactly the right temperature, and is being watched closely. When babies become stable enough to keep themselves warm without any help from equipment, and the staff don’t need to see them unswaddled for medical reasons, we’ll get them all dressed and swaddled.
If your little one is in an incubator or on a radiant warmer, and is unswaddled & undressed, don’t hesitate to ask your NICU when your baby will be ready for clothes and swaddling. And ask them if you can bring in your own items from home - it will help you feel connected with your baby if you have some control over what he wears while he’s still there in the NICU. (Side note: Be sure when you pick out preemie & NICU clothing that you choose outfits which are appropriate for the NICU - all the tubes and wires, the right size for preemies, etc. EVERYtinyTHING is a NICU Specialty store that carries high-quality, trusted, NICU-friendly clothing.) If for some reason your NICU won’t allow it, know that you’ll be dressing and swaddling your little one very soon at home!
Did you have a hard time seeing your baby bare? When did your NICU finally dress and swaddle your little one?