Most parents hope for a smooth, healthy birth. And that’s usually the way it goes. According to the World Health Organization, somewhere between 90-95% of births are normal and healthy. But when your newborn needs to go to the NICU (or Neonatal Intensive Care Unit), it means that the baby requires a higher level of care–and intensive intervention may be required.
There are several reasons why your baby might need to spend some time in the NICU. In all of those cases, the NICU will give your baby the best possible chance for a long, happy, and healthy childhood. But there’s no getting around the fact that this can be a stressful, lonely, and understandably scary time for parents.
The more you know about what to expect, the better prepared you can be if and when your baby needs to go to the NICU.
Why Might Newborns Need Intensive Care?
There are several reasons why your newborn may need to spend some time in the neonatal intensive care unit. Some of the most common include the following:
- Preterm birth.
- A difficult or challenging birth.
- Low birth weight.
- Illness or other conditions.
- Your baby is born with certain birth defects.
We don’t often think about it this way, but even a normal birth is a shock to a baby’s system. Their lungs must suddenly start breathing air. Your newborn’s digestive system must suddenly function independently. And their heart must start pumping blood in a whole new way. While these changes often occur as a matter of routine, some newborns have a harder time with transition outside the womb. In some cases, this is because their bodies simply are not developed enough.
Neonatal Intensive Care Units are designed to help babies through this transition when problems arise.
What is the NICU?
The neonatal intensive care unit is a section of a hospital designed to help newborns who are critically ill or have other serious conditions. A NICU will have special nurses, doctors, and technology specifically devoted to helping newborn patients recover. Not all hospitals will have equally capable or equipped NICUs, so it’s possible your newborn will need to be transferred to a better equipped facility. This will depend on the nature of their condition.
NICUs are designed to have a limited number of visitors. To the extent possible, however, parents are invited and encouraged to take part in their newborn’s care during this time.
What Should You Do When Your Newborn Needs to go to the NICU?
For parents, it may be hard to know what’s expected of you when your newborn is in the NICU. When your newborn needs to go to the NICU, your life may feel suddenly turned upside down. After all, this is likely not how you were imagining welcoming your new baby to the world. However, it’s important to remember that time in an NICU is usually temporary.
You will be surrounded by a large array of medical equipment–and you might not necessarily understand what it’s for. Parents are encouraged to ask questions about this equipment and what it does–especially if it makes them feel better!
There are some things that you can do as parents that will help with your newborn’s care:
- Hold your baby: In some cases, physical contact can be good for you and your baby. Depending on your newborn’s condition, you may be able to hold them even if they’re hooked up to an IV. However, that’s not always true–so be sure to ask your newborn’s doctor. Additionally, for some preterm babies, touch can be stressful. In those cases, your doctor might instruct you to refrain from touching. But generally, skin-to-skin contact with your baby is good–and it helps to start building emotional support bonds as early as possible.
- Interact with your newborn: Whether you can safely touch your newborn or not, there are other ways you can provide comfort. For example, you could try singing or softly speaking to your baby.
- Make sure you follow all NICU rules: Whenever anyone enters the NICU, they must thoroughly wash their hands. That’s because a newborn’s immune system is not nearly as strong as an adult’s, so minimizing the spread of germs is critical to preventing infections. The rules and regulations of neonatal intensive care units may seem strict, but they’re designed to keep all the newborns safe. This is also the reason that you should check with your nurse before bringing toys or other objects for your baby.
Neonatal intensive care units may also require parents to wear certain garments while spending time with their newborn. In some cases, direct contact between newborns and parents will be limited. Much will depend on the condition of your newborn, the nature of their ailment, and their overall health. Parents are encouraged to communicate with their providers to ensure they understand what’s happening and why.
Don’t Forget to Take Care of Yourself
Having a child in the NICU can be an intense and stressful experience. It can also feel quite isolating. For many, it will feel like your world has suddenly transformed. That’s why it’s important to spare some energy to take care of yourself. It becomes much harder to support your newborn’s recovery if you have no energy left.
As a result, it’s recommended that parents do the following:
- To the degree possible, try to maintain some sense of normality. It’s okay to develop a new routine. Let this routine become your normal day.
- Make sure you don’t ignore the needs of your other children (if you have any) or stop spending time with them.
- Have a regular social gathering. Maybe you get together with your family for dinner once a week. You can use this time to talk about what you’re going through.
- Make time to relax: This can include simple activities like sitting down with a good book, taking a nice hot bath, or binging your favorite show on Netflix. You will need time to recover and recuperate.
Your NICU may have other support resources available for parents. Be sure to ask your provider about those resources.
Not all parents will spend the same amount of time in the NICU. That’s okay. Every family is different. In general, the baby does not need you there every hour of every day. Some parents spend 12 hours a day in the NICU, while others might spend four.
How Long Will my Baby Be in the NICU?
For understandable reasons, most parents are eager to take their newborns home. Not just because home is more comfortable–but also because it will signal that their baby is healthy enough to leave the hospital.
How long your newborn spends in the NICU will depend on the main reason they are there. Preterm babies, for example, usually spend the longest time in the NICU. That’s because their continued growth is critical to their wellness. Typically, preterm babies average a stay in the NICU of somewhere around 45 days, but this depends on how early they arrived and their overall progress.
For most other newborns in the NICU, the stay is somewhat shorter. The average for non-preterm newborns in the neonatal intensive care unit is close to two weeks. Again, this will vary depending on your newborn and the reason for their admittance to the NICU.
Get the Care You Need
The vast majority of babies and parents will never set foot in an NICU. But it happens. So, if you have questions about the NICU, it’s worth asking your OBGYN or Midwife about what you can expect. The more you know ahead of time, the better prepared you’ll be.
The NICU is there to give your baby the best possible chance at a healthy and happy childhood. To talk to your OBGYN or Midwife about the NICU, contact our Wilmette or Glenview offices to schedule an appointment today.