5 Ways NICU Parents Can Take Care of their Baby in the NICU

June 1, 2023

I'm katie, OTD, OTR/L, NTMTC, CNT & founder of blooming littles

Guess who has the greatest influence on a baby's NICU stay? It's YOU! Let's get you the tools, info, and resources needed to create positive NICU experiences, one interaction at a time.

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The neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) is an ICU for babies. Not many families plan or know that their pregnancy journey will include a NICU stay. It makes it tough to prepare when everything feels a bit like a traumatic whirlwind. 

If you’re navigating what it means to be a parent in the NICU, I’m glad you’re here. This space is 100% for you. I hope you find some answers, hope, and encouragement at Blooming Littles.

There are a lot of things about having a baby in the NICU that are difficult. 

Not being able to hold your baby, the unusual sights and sounds, all the medical equipment, and having to separate from your baby to name only a few. For families who have spent time in the NICU, one of the most difficult things to figure out is what to do. 

You may be asking yourself, “What’s my role now?”

It’s a common feeling to be unsure of where exactly you stand within your baby’s new medical experience. You can feel caught between wanting to step up and be involved as mom or dad, but also feel intimidated by the medical professionals who are taking care of your sick and medically fragile baby. Oftentimes, when you’re a new NICU parent on the unit…you will spend time watching your baby’s nurse and other staff do care tasks like change their diaper, take temperatures, or examine their head and tummy.

One of the things I’m most passionate about here at Blooming Littles is educating and empowering NICU parents and providers to keep parents at the center of care, to pour into them and build them up to know just how important they are for their baby.

Because you are. NICU parents can play an active role in their baby’s journey from the start.

If you find yourself currently in the NICU, you may be battling both positive and negative emotions…wondering what you’re allowed to do with your baby, maybe even wondering if you’ll ever feel like their mom or dad.

You need to know that you are so important for your child, and there are so many reasons why your baby wants you to do their care.

Your baby wants you. 

If you’ve been wondering what exactly you’re allowed to do or how you can get involved…keep reading as we walk through 5 common ways parents can be involved with their baby while they’re in the NICU.

1) Change your baby’s diaper

All babies in the NICU need to have their diaper changed every few hours, just like any other baby! 

The big difference? You may find yourself changing their diaper with your hands in an incubator or maneuvering through different medical lines and tubes. 

It can seem strange that small preemies need a diaper change, but a diaper change is actually super important from the day your baby is born. It provides important information for your baby’s medical team, like how hydrated your baby is or how their gut is functioning. 

Even though it can feel really intimidating to change a diaper with all those lines wires and tubes, it’s is a great place for you to start if you’ve been wanting to take on some of those parenting tasks you’ve been looking forward to. Changing your baby’s diaper may look and feel different than you expected or imagined, but that is still your baby. You are so, so special to them.

And memories can be made, even in the NICU.

EXTRA TIP: After you change that diaper, don’t throw it away in the trashcan. Either hand it to your nurse, or place it on the table or counter next to your baby’s bed or place it on the scale. Your baby’s nurse may need to weigh the diaper and look at the contents.

*If you accidentally toss it, don’t worry…I have spent many a day fishing diapers out of the trashcan because I did the same thing.

2) Take your baby’s temperature.

Have you heard of your baby’s NICU “cares” or “assessment”?

This is basically their “touch time”. It’s the time of day when their nurse gets hands-on and goes through some medical tasks to check and see how your baby is doing. It usually happens every 2-4 hours around the clock.

EXTRA TIP: Make sure to ask what your baby’s assessment schedule is so that you can plan on visiting around that time (it’s the BEST time to learn and get precious hands-on time with your baby!). 

One of the things your baby’s nurse will want to do is take their temperature, but really it’s some thing you can do if you want to.

Some babies don’t need a manual temperature taken using a thermometer, because they have a little wire taped to their skin that gives a continual reading of their body temperature. This is more common in babies who are working on regulating their temperature by themselves, like babies born premature.

Wondering if you can jump in and take on the role of temperature taker? Ask your baby’s nurse to walk you through it. This is just one more thing that you can do for your baby during this time.

3) Hold your baby skin-to-skin or swaddled.

Did you know that holding your baby is one of the absolute best things you can do to support their development, promote sleep and protect their growing brain? 

Decades of research have outlined the benefits of skin-to-skin holding in the NICU, (this is also called kangaroo care!).

Benefits like:

  • improved oxygen saturations,
  • longer periods of deep sleep,
  • greater weight gain,
  • better developmental outcomes after discharge,
  • greater parent confidence,
  • increased milk supply, and even
  • a shorter length of stay in the NICU.

Most NICU babies are able to be held skin-to-skin with mom or dad (you can read 10 tips for a better kangaroo care experience here!)…it may even get to happen pretty soon after birth as long as mom and baby are doing well. NICU medical teams are excellent at helping medically fragile babies get up to be held by mom with all of the lines and tubes. 

Skin-to-skin moments can bring up a lot of emotions for you, you may feel afraid or nervous. You may feel overjoyed, relieved or at ease because you’re finally with your baby. Maybe you feel a complete mixture of emotions.

Regardless, I want you to know that this may be an option for you, so ask your team whether it’s something you can do today.

If your baby is older and able to hold their own temperature, you may be able to swaddle them up and hold them in your arms. Your baby’s nurse can let you know whether that is an option.

4) Advocate for your baby at medical rounds.

Part of being a parent means advocating for the absolute best for your baby. If you’ve spent a lot of time in the NICU and have grown in tune with your baby, you often have a special insight into how they are doing on a daily basis. You may even notice you’re starting to get some gut reactions about whether your baby is feeling well or not.

As a NICU parent, you are an important member of your baby’s medical team.

Have something you feel like the team needs to know about your baby?

Give the nurse a call, or ask to speak with a doctor.

One of the best ways to advocate for your baby, share your thoughts and ask questions about their care is at medical rounds.

Not sure what rounds are? I break it down for you in this post

Advocating for your baby in the middle of a medical environment, especially when you’re learning and growing confident in yourself can be really difficult. You may feel uneducated, or like your voice isn’t as important as everyone around you. Let me assure you that it is.

I have experienced many situations when parents who spoke up about their baby’s care, change the trajectory of their baby’s life in a beautiful way.

5) Give your baby a bath.

Did you read that and think “Whoa! Babies can get baths with all that medical equipment?!”

Yep! But… It’s going to look quite a bit different from what you may have expected or been practicing at home before your baby was born. All babies in the NICU get baths or cleaned on a regular basis (usually every 4-5 days).

The type of bath your baby gets will depend on:

  • how stable they are,
  • the medical equipment they have,
  • whether they were premature, 
  • and how well they’re able to tolerate care.

There are two main ways that babies get baths in the NICU. They can get baths by being submerged in water (resembling a more traditional tub bath), or they can get what we can think of as a “wipe-down bath”. 

If you’re feeling up for trying a bath with your baby, make sure you ask your nurse when their next bath will be and how you can be involved. 

And there you have it…5 ways NICU parents can be involved in their baby’s care.

Remember, getting hands-on and doing some of these tasks and activities with your baby is what’s going to help you shift into that role of mom or dad. It’s normal if it feels new and nerve-wracking at first. But, as each day passes and as you practice…you will grow more comfortable and confident being there for your little one.

And we get it, you’re not always able to be in the NICU (as much as we know you want to be!). 

We want you to know that you can still support your sweet baby’s development and make a difference! You can learn four ways to nurture that bond from afar here.

You are brave, and you are more capable than you know. You are amazing

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