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In the NICU

  • In the NICU, your baby gets special medical care.
  • Get to know the NICU staff who take care of your baby.
  • Ask questions and get involved in your baby's care.
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Getting close with your baby

Your newborn has a unique personality, as well as special ways of reacting to the wolrd around her. When you are with your baby, observe her pleasure or discomfort at certain sounds, sights, touches, movements, tastes or smells. When she withdraws or gets fussy, stop or reduce whatever stimulation is bothering her. When your baby is calm and alert, see what's soothing or enjoyable for her.

If your baby was born prematurely, don't expect her to have much interest in the world for a few weeks or even months. Similarly, if your baby is very sick, she needs all her energy to recover. As your baby feels better and matures, she will become more interested in the world around her. To encourage your baby to respond to you, try some of the following strategies.

Connecting to baby

  • Focus on your baby. Give yourself permission to relax and enjoy special moments. While it's normal to feel anxious, breathing deeply may help you feel calmer and able to tune into your little one.
  • Pay close attention to your baby's cues. If she arches hers back, change or hold back your touch. If she calms when you cup her head and feet with your hands, use that technique to soothe her. If she turns toward you, offer her eye contact or a gentle voice—or both. If she turns away when you talk, but toward you when you sing, she's showing a preference for that kind of voice.
  • Imitate your baby's actions and level of interest. When your baby turns toward you, see what kinds of voice or facial expressions hold his interest. When he turns his head or looks away to rest, you can rest, too. When he's ready, he'll look toward you again. Then you can respond by talking, singing, or smiling and making eye contact. By following your baby's lead, you encourage him to stay calm and attentive. And remember that sometimes your baby won't be ready to come back for more until after a good nap.
  • Protect your baby from overwhelming stimulation. If your baby is particularly sensitive to light, sound or touch, ask the NICU staff to dim overhead lights, turn down monitors, and provide the kind of touch your baby finds soothing. Put up a sign in her incubator to remind your health care teammates to consider these sensitivities.
  • Provide a calming touch, voice or activity. Try talking in a soothing voice, singing or reading to him, swaddling him in a blanket, cupping his head and feet with your hands, cradling him in your arms, rocking him, or holding him upright on your chest or shoulder. By helping your baby stay calm when he's awake, you help him stay alert without becoming overwhelmed.
  • Take photographs of your baby. In the NICU, you are focused on your infant's health and may not be thinking about taking pictures of your baby. But photographs can be very meaningful for families during this time. You can take beautiful photos of your baby while she is in the NICU. Bring a photo of your baby home with you at the end of the day to feel connected with your newborn. Share photos with your baby's older siblings, other family members and friends who cannot come to the NICU very often. Photograph memorable moments, such as when your baby first opens her eyes, kangaroo care and sibling visits. These photos are memories forever.
  • If possible, decorate your baby's space. Though the hospital is not very private or cozy, work with the staff to try to make it a little bit more like home. You may be able to bring a blanket to drape over the incubator. Ask the medical staff if you can place family photos or small toys in or near the incubator. You may be able to leave a cloth with your scent or a recorded tape of your voice or some special music, so your baby is reminded of you when you are away.

Our article on Kangaroo Care has more ideas.

As you learn how to respond to your baby, you encourage him to be more responsive to you and interested in his surroundings. Your nurturing presence is a wonderful foundation for the relationship that you are forming.

Baby: A Keepsake Journal: This booklet ($7.95) provides a place for parents to write about their new baby, including milestones, difficult days, days of celebration, hopes and dreams. Order your copy now.

See also: Share your story

August 2009

Excerpted from the March of Dimes booklet, "Parent: You & Your Baby in the NICU", written in collaboration with Deborah L. Davis, Ph.D., and Mara Tesler Stein, Psy.D., authors of "Parenting Your Premature Baby and Child: The Emotional Journey".

On your baby's team

Confused about all the people caring for your baby in the NICU? Find out who's who.

Most common questions

Is it OK to hold my baby in the NICU?

It depends on your baby's health overall. Some newborn intensive care units (NICUs) will encourage you to hold your baby from birth onward. Other NICUs will want you to wait until your baby's health is stable. Ask your NICU staff about its policy on kangaroo care (holding your baby on your bare chest). Kangaroo care has benefits for both you and your baby. The skin-to-skin contact is a precious way to be close to your baby. You may be afraid you'll hurt him by holding him. But you won't. Your baby knows your scent, touch and the rhythms of your speech and breathing, and he’ll enjoy feeling that closeness with you.

My baby was born full term. Why is she in the NICU?

Not all newborn intensive care unit (NICU) babies are born premature. Some babies, even those born full term, may need special care. Your baby may need to spend some time in the NICU if she had a difficult delivery, has breathing problems, has infections or has birth defects.

Most babies leave the NICU just fine. Others may need more special care once they're home.

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