What is NICU?
NICU stands for Neonatal Intensive Care Unit. NICU provides special beds or incubators for babies that keep them warm and help protect them from infection. Some poorly and premature babies will also need a respirator to help them breathe.
Most babies in NICU will need help with feeding. This means that they will often have a little tube up their nose that can deliver food straight to their tummy as well as a glucose drip, usually in their arm, which gives them a steady supply of nutrients.
Why does my baby need special care?
About one in eight babies will need some special medical care after they are born. Sometimes parents will know before the birth that their babies will need special care because of a pre-existing condition that has been picked up during pregnancy in either the baby or the mother.
If the doctors know that your baby will be born premature you will probably be given a series of steroid injections before your baby is born to help their lungs to grow more so they are better able to breathe.
Sometimes after a difficult birth or if a baby is experiencing difficulty breathing, they may need to be taken to a special care unit with paediatricians and specialist nurses to support them and assess them for a short period after the birth.
Common reasons why a baby needs special care:
- Premature birth (babies can survive from 23 weeks gestation but babies born before 34 weeks may need support to breathe, feed and keep warm)
- Low birth weight
- An infection, eg Group B Strep that can be contracted during the birth
- A poor Apgar score (an Apgar score is a simple assessment of your baby’s health carried out by medical staff as soon as he is born. It assesses things like muscle tone, heart rate, breathing and colour)
- Your baby is ‘grunting’ or experiencing difficulty breathing after the birth
- A difficult birth, eg a dislocated shoulder
- You have gestational diabetes
- Some newborn babies who have been discharged from hospital may be admitted to special care if they become very poorly
How can I look after my baby in NICU?
It can be really frightening for a new parent to see their premature or poorly baby lying in an incubator. There are so many doctors and nurses about that some parents feel in the way. However, parents of babies in NICU have a hugely important role to play in looking after, loving and feeding their baby.
Your voice and touch lets your baby know that their parents are close by. When your baby is able to come out of the incubator they will love lots of skin-to-skin contact. Cuddling skin-to-skin helps to regulate your baby’s breathing and temperature. It is also a lovely way to get to know your new baby. In a hospital in Colombia they had no incubators and encouraged parents to keep their babies in skin-to-skin contact. The doctors found that these babies had much better survival rates and so this kind of ‘kangaroo care’ has been adopted all around the world.
Most NICUs have parent rooms so that you can sleep at the hospital with your new baby. This can really help establish breastfeeding and allow you to spend as much time as possible together.
Breast milk is the best food for all babies. It is particularly important for premature and poorly babies. Premature babies are very vulnerable to infection and breast milk provides them with the antibodies they need and also protects against dangerous diseases such as ‘necrotising enterocolitis’, which is a serious infection of the baby’s gut. Your first milk, called colostrum, will coat and protect your baby’s vulnerable gut.
For this reason all parents with babies in NICU are encouraged to breastfeed and express breast milk for their babies. For some mums of very premature babies it can be difficult to produce breast milk initially, so many NICUs have a breast milk bank stocked with precious donated breast milk for the babies.
As soon as your baby is well enough, you will be encouraged to feed and change your baby. This can be a little nerve-wracking at first because your baby may be small and may have extra items like drip-lines and temperature sensors that can get in the way.
With a little bit of practice you will become an expert changing your baby and will probably also learn how to give a feed through the feeding tube in their nose (this is called a nasogastric tube).
To find out more about the special care of premature and poorly babies in hospital, we recommend that you visit the charity Bliss for babies born too soon, too small, too sick, or call the Bliss Family Support Helpline on 0500 618140. The helpline is open Monday to Friday, 10am to 4pm, as well as 7pm to 9pm on Monday to Wednesday, or you can e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org and they’ll get back to you as soon as possible.