Whether you are aware that your baby (or babies!) may need to be in the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) at birth—like the Sharps were when they had their triplets—or expect everything to be smooth sailing, choosing a hospital with a high-level NICU can be a good idea.
But the NICU can be intimidating, with all the tubes, alarms and machines. Here, our expert neonatologist takes some of the mystery out of this lifesaving hospital department and answers several of the most common questions parents-to-be have about the NICU.
What can I expect if my baby is in the NICU?
Your experience in the NICU will largely depend on how early your baby is born. Generally, the closer your baby is born to full term, the less time he or she will have to spend there. A baby born close to full term may only need to stay for a few days or weeks. All babies in the NICU are placed in incubators and are constantly monitored by machines as well as specialized nursing staff.
Additionally, babies in the NICU may need:
- To be fed through a feeding tube
- Treatment for breathing, from a little oxygen administered through small plastic tubes (cannula) inserted into the baby's nose to a larger breathing tube which may be connected to a ventilator
Why are there so many tubes and alarms attached to my baby in the NICU?
Premature babies need lots of extra help to maintain stable body functions, so they require constant monitoring for:
- Temperature, because they lose heat very quickly
- Vital signs, such as heart rate, blood pressure, etc.
- Oxygen levels (which may include a breathing tube)
- Food intake (which may include a feeding tube)
This round-the-clock care requires a variety of devices and technology, including alarms that will alert nursing staff and parents if something isn't right.
Can I breastfeed my baby in the NICU?
The simple answer is yes. However, in the first few days and weeks, it's hard to know how much milk the baby is taking in. It's recommended that moms pump breast milk and feed it to the baby in a bottle (which can be measured) in addition to breastfeeding. Once the baby is more mature and is able to complete feeds, it's recommended to breastfeed exclusively.
How can I bond with my baby in the NICU?
Bonding is healthy and strongly encouraged for parents of NICU babies, even when babies are very sick. Simply sitting by a sick baby's bedside and gently touching the baby may be reassuring. It's also a good idea to read to your baby. When the baby is more mature and stable, parents can "kangaroo" their baby, which is placing the baby skin-to-skin against your chest.
Research clearly shows that kangaroo care:
- Helps babies thrive
- Improves vital signs
- Decreases the length of time spent in the NICU
Will my baby have to wear a flat head helmet?
The majority of babies in the NICU do not need to wear a flat head helmet.