The Parents' Role
Brand-new moms and dads with babies in the NICU often feel helpless, but their role in their baby's care is vital. Bonding, holding and breastfeeding are as important as the medical care infants receive. You may not have the chance to hold your baby right away because he needs immediate medical attention. But once he's safely ensconced in an incubator, you'll probably be able to touch him gently, while wearing latex gloves. Each time you enter the NICU, you'll scrub as if preparing for surgery and wear a disposable hospital gown on top of your street clothes to prevent passing germs on to your baby. You may also be asked to wear a mask.
Make it a habit to be at the NICU for feeding times if you can. Breastfeeding is encouraged. “Nursing [including feeding baby breast milk] helps to mature premature babies' digestive system and their lungs and helps with brain development,” says Brenda Jennings R.N., a NICU lactation consultant at Baptist Memorial Hospital for Women in Memphis, Tennessee. “Breastfed babies tend to grow better and go home sooner.” Even if you can't breastfeed, you can take over feeding the baby for the nurse and bond with your infant. Keep in mind, though, that there are certain times of day the NICU is off-limits, usually when doctors are doing their rounds and during shift changes. Remember, the nurses are in charge and can be your lifeline to your baby. Adrienne Fulk, mom of baby Hunter who spent 22 days in the NICU, says, “Being on [nurses'] good side counted for a lot, whether it meant giving Hunter the incubator near the window or letting us hold him despite complicated wires/catheters. In addition to providing small favors, they were a wealth of information, not only in terms of explaining complicated medical terminology but also to handle and care for a newborn. In a way, we were lucky to have such amazing training on diapering, bathing, swaddling and nursing a newborn.” Today, Hunter is a vivacious, happy and healthy 2-year-old.
What Else Can You Do?
Pump If your baby is too weak to nurse, you can express breast milk with a pump, which will be fed to him via a feeding tube.
Cuddle When baby is strong enough to be held outside his incubator, place him skin-to-skin on mom's or dad's chest. The proven benefits for a preemie or sick baby of this “kangaroo care” include warmth, stability of heartbeat and breathing, increased time spent in deep sleep and quiet alert states, less crying, better weight gain and increased breastfeeding.
Go cloth Laundering tiny cloth diapers is a chore that can help you feel involved in your baby's care. Happy Heinys makes special preemie-size diapers.
Be there (even when you're not) Tape a picture of your family to baby's incubator — it's a sweet way to “be there” all the time. Plus, it lets new shifts of hospital personnel know who you are when you visit. Make sure your cell phone numbers are clearly visible and taped to his bed — it can help ensure immediate calls in case of emergencies or treatment changes.
Linger Bring a blanket, a few one-piece bodysuits and a small stuffed animal from home so he can learn your smell and hopefully be comforted by it.
Take care of yourself Accept help, take naps at the hospital and go out for fresh air and meals.
While it may seem like you're waiting forever, eventually you'll be able to take your baby home. Before you do, the NICU staff will make sure you know how to take care of your baby, particularly if she still has special needs. You may be required to learn infant CPR (important for all new parents), how to administer medication or how to operate monitors or any other special equipment. Many hospitals let parents spend a night or two in the unit in a special room where the NICU nurses can watch you care for your baby and answer any questions. Then, eventually, you'll go home as a family, your baby will grow and the NICU will be just a memory.