21 Tips for Navigating the NICU

Whether your newborn has to stay at the hospital for a couple extra nights or for much longer, here’s how to prepare for the unexpected.

Mom Holding Preemie Baby's Hand in NICU Shutterstock
The odds are on your side that your child will be born full-term and perfectly healthy. Still, about one in 13 babies in the United States spends some time in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU). And a recent study by The Dartmouth Institute for Health Policy and Clinical Practice and the Geisel School of Medicine found that 43 percent of these infants are not even premature—they are full-term babies who need more care. For new parents, having a newborn in the NICU can feel scary and overwhelming, so we asked top medical professionals, as well as moms who’ve been there, for their best coping strategies.

Prepare Yourself

“The first time you see your baby in the NICU can be shocking and emotional. Since your partner will probably see her first while you’re recovering from delivery, ask how she looks. Pictures can help prepare you.” Tiffani Greenaway of Brooklyn, whose oldest son was born at 35 weeks

Designate One Person to Share the News

“This way, you only give one update to one person, rather than dealing with endless calls and texts from well-meaning friends and family. Parents should focus their energy on being with their baby, not on giving constant updates.” Rick Stafford, M.D., director of neonatology at Northern Westchester Hospital in Mount Kisco, New York

Share Your Scent

“Many NICUs will give moms bits of fleece or cloth dolls to put between their breasts and then place in the incubator near the baby. It’s comforting since she already knows your scent.” Sue L. Hall, M.D., Ventura, California, neonatologist and author of For the Love of Babies: One Doctor’s Stories About Life in the Neonatal ICU

Make Nice with the NICU Nurses 

“They are your lifeline. They’re the ones who teach you how to change a diaper, feed your baby, and give him a bath. They’re the ones who answer your questions and explain things.” Kate Lindner of Madison, Wisconsin, whose three children were all born between 32 and 35 weeks

Be Patient

“For premature babies, breathing is their number-one priority, not eating. Learning to coordinate the suck and swallow takes time, and a baby typically isn’t ready to learn to do that until close to full term. Even then, a bottle might be easier at first. But just because he starts out on a bottle doesn’t mean he won’t breastfeed. He can learn it over time.” Melanie Potock, a pediatric feeding specialist in Denver and coauthor of Raising a Healthy, Happy Eater

Go for Top of the Line

“If a regular breast pump is a sedan, a hospital-grade pump is a Mack Truck. They have much stronger motors than the ones in stores, and when you’re trying to establish your milk supply while Baby’s unable to effectively suck, you want the Mack Truck. Start pumping the day after birth at least eight times a day for the first weeks. Many insurance companies will cover the rental fee if your newborn is in the NICU.” Leigh Anne O’Connor, a lactation consultant in New York City

Ask About Donated Milk

“If you can’t provide enough, see if your nurses can get breast milk from a milk bank.” Judy Gibson, R.N., a NICU nurse in Baltimore

Take Pictures (Tubes and All) 

“You don’t have to showcase them to the world if you don’t want to, but that’s your baby! One day you’ll be so glad to have the photos, because they’ll be a reminder of how far you and your baby have come.” Naomi D. Williams, of Martinez, Georgia, whose son was born at 26 weeks

Touch, Don't Stroke

“Softly place one hand on top of your baby’s head and another under her feet or around her bottom to confine her. It’s more soothing for preemies.” Gibson

Practice Kangaroo Care

“As soon as your doctor allows it, start placing Baby on your bare chest in only a diaper. Skin-to-skin contact is one of the best things for her. It’s important for bonding, regulating body temperature, gaining weight, and helping protect her from infection. It also dramatically increases breastmilk production.” Dr. Stafford

Don't Feel Pressured to Form an Automatic Bond

“I felt a lot of guilt for not having this immediate connection and outpouring of love for my baby. It’s important to realize that’s a very normal human reaction. Looking at a baby inside a plastic box makes it hard to bond.” Kelli Kelley of Austin, founder of Hand to Hold, a nonprofit support group for parents of preemies

Talk, Sing, and Read to Baby

“Because your sweetie knows your voice, it’s very soothing. Hearing words is also critical for brain development. It doesn’t matter what you read. It can be the back of food packaging. You can even make a recording and ask the nurses to play it when you’re not there.” Deb Discenza of Burke, Virginia, founder of PreemieWorld.com and coauthor of The Preemie Parent’s Survival Guide to the NICU

Decorate the Incubator

“Our boys were in incubators for months, and we covered the entire inside with pictures of us and other family members. Even though we knew they probably couldn’t see them, it made us feel better to know that when they opened their eyes, they were looking at us.” Jenn Campbell of Avon, Connecticut, whose twins were born at 25 weeks

Stay Hydrated

“I would sit in the NICU for hours at a time, and it never occurred to me to bring in bottled water. Once I did, I started producing a lot more milk.” Kerri Carder of Charlotte, North Carolina, whose baby was born at 27 weeks

It's Okay to Call to Check on Baby

“If you’re worried in the middle of the night and can’t sleep, go ahead and call. You’re not waking anyone up, and we’re happy to tell you what’s going on.” Gibson

Seek out Other Preemie Parents 

“Talking to moms with full-term babies will drive you crazy. Even with the best intentions, they just don’t understand what you’re going through. Try to find other moms of preemies you can talk to. See if your hospital has a preemie support group, or find one online.” Nicole Goers of South Lyon, Michigan, whose twins were born at 25 weeks

Become an Expert on Your Child 

“Make it clear that you want to be involved in your baby’s care from the beginning. If he’s taking a bottle, ask one of the nurses to teach you how to feed him. Soon you will know his mannerisms, what his cries mean, his likes and dislikes.” Williams

Expect a Few Setbacks 

“Late preterm babies—those born from 34 weeks to nearly 37 weeks—will often look perfectly healthy on day one, and then a few days later, problems start to kick in, such as feeding difficulties, jaundice, hypothermia, and more. Micro preemies also tend to have a honeymoon period. It’s distressing to some parents, because it seems like their baby is getting sicker, but they really are just acting like preemies.” Gibson

Don't Dwell on When Your Baby Gets to Leave 

“It’s overwhelming watching other babies go home while yours is still there, but try not to think about it, and live in the moment with your baby.” Campbell

Alert Emergency Personnel Before You Go Home 

 “If your child needs medical equipment in your home, call your local emergency responders. Tell them where you live and about your baby’s condition. Call your electricity provider and ask if your home can be a top priority for getting service restored in a power outage. Hang up a big board with important numbers in case of an emergency.” Jennifer Schwertfeger of Mankato, Minnesota, author of Life with Grace, a book about her daughter who was born at 24 weeks

Allow Yourself to Grieve for What You Missed

 “You expected to have a typical pregnancy, to go all the way to term, to grow this nice big belly, to have a baby shower, to have a great delivery, to bring your baby home from the hospital—all of those things society tells us are part of the perfect pregnancy. It’s okay to feel sad that you missed those things.” Williams