There’s no doubt that parenting in the NICU is different from parenting at home. This is true in obvious ways, like sharing your little one’s care with nurses and other hospital caregivers, as well as in less-obvious ways, like the incubator that shields you right now from mid diaper-change streams of pee. There’s something you might miss during your future at-home diaper changes!
- Understand that your emotions might change a lot: It’s completely normal to feel all kinds of emotions while your baby is in the NICU. Some common ones include fear, anger, confusion, and helplessness. The first step to parenting in the NICU is to understand that it’s okay to have conflicting thoughts and feelings about the NICU, and that these emotions don’t say anything bad about you as a parent.
- Get to know the staff, and ask questions as often as you need to: The staff in the NICU aren’t just here to help your preemie; they’re here to help parents, too. By learning who’s who in the NICU and who’s taking care of their baby, parents can feel more comfortable making requests, helping out when possible, and understanding what’s going on with their baby’s care.
- Pump if you can: Not every new mom can breastfeed, and this might be especially true for mothers of preemies. If you aren’t able to pump yet, you’re not alone! But if you are able to, pumping while you’re in the NICU can help keep your supply up. More than that, though, since babies in the NICU can be bottle- or gavage-fed breast milk, your body can get a head-start on feeding your baby. Breast milk is an incredible source of nutrients for a newborn, and it’s something that only a mother can provide. Pumping while in the NICU is one very concrete way for new moms to focus on what they can do for their babies while they’re in the NICU.
- Talk or sing: Parents don’t need perfect pitch to sound perfect to their preemie. Your baby will love every second of your off-tune rendition of Hamilton, and will appreciate all the things you have to say about the world outside of the NICU. Many parents report feeling a little ‘on display’ while in the NICU, so know that if you feel awkward the first few times you talk or sing out loud, that’s completely normal, and will go away with practice.
- Use your magic parent touch: To a newborn, a parent’s touch feels like warm rays of sun on a summer afternoon – only a hundred times better. The NICU staff will do everything they can to help you make a physical connection with your baby, including something called ‘kangaroo care,’ or skin-to-skin contact between a baby and their parent. Sometimes this is delayed until a baby is in stable health, so talk to your NICU staff about their policy. In the meantime, take every opportunity to make that physical connection with your preemie. It isn’t just good for them – it’s good for parents, too.
- Help out whenever possible: Your ‘magic parent touch’ extends beyond holding or cradling your baby. The NICU staff can teach you how to do bathe and change your baby, as well as take their temperature. If you haven’t started helping out in the NICU, ask one of the nurses when you can begin to learn. Never underestimate the skin-to-skin value of a diaper change!
It isn’t easy to start your parenting career in the NICU. There are all kinds of challenges, both physical and emotional, that make it one of the hardest things parents ever go through. No matter what, though, one of the best things you can do right now is to start practicing your parenting techniques in whatever way you can in the specific environment of the NICU. It’s good for your baby, and it will definitely help you. Your baby isn’t the only one who gets stronger in the NICU, after all. You’re getting stronger, too!
“Becoming a parent in the NICU.” March of Dimes. March of Dimes Foundation, 2016. Web.
“Common parent reactions to the NICU.” Healthy Children. American Academy of Pediatrics, Nov 21 2015. Web.
“Parenting in the NICU.” CHOC. Children’s Hospital of Orange County, 2015. Web.
Jill Baley. “Skin-to-skin care care for term and preterm infants in the neonatal NICU.” American Academy of Pediatrics. 136 (3) 596-599. Web. Sep 1 2015.