Unable to visit your NICU baby? Here are three things you can do to support their development.

December 5, 2020

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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If you are unable to be at your NICU baby’s bedside 24/7 (I don’t know of many who can!), there are ways you can support your baby’s development while they’re in the NICU! Yep, even if you can’t be at their bedside. Did you have to go back to work? Do you have 4 other kids? Let’s talk about 3 simple ways you can support development and facilitate bonding even when you can’t be in the NICU. Always remember…whatever your circumstances, YOU ARE ENOUGH!

I was having a conversation with one of the sweetest mamas ever.

She was sitting in a rocker, looking out the window in her babe’s NICU room, holding her sleeping baby boy.

Her former 27 week preemie.

A preemie now nearing his due date. 

We were talking about something I’ve talked with many NICU parents about over the years—not being able to be with your baby. 

You are NOT alone.

If you…

  1. are unable to visit your baby because of responsibilities at home,
  2. live far away,
  3. are unable to afford gas to visit as much as you want,
  4. overwhelmed with being in the NICU all day every day,
  5. back to work so you can save maternity leave for when your baby is home,
  6. managing 4 other kiddos at home…

there IS something you can do.

Here are 3 amazing ways YOU can support your baby and promote bonding, even when you can’t be at the bedside.


Scent cloths are used in NICUs across the country as a part of neuroprotective care (care supporting your baby’s brain and neurologic development!) . 

Your NICU may already use them with the tiniest babies.

Now, what even is a scent cloth?

It’s simple. 

A scent cloth is a piece of fabric that mom wears in her bra to transfer their maternal breast scent.

Some NICUs have specially made scent cloths—but you can also just use a small, soft piece of fabric or a breast pad.

Then, that piece of fabric is placed in the baby’s bed (sometimes under their head), so the baby can be fully exposed to mom’s smell.

Just be sure you remember it’s there, so it doesn’t get removed by accident!

Did you know your baby is extremely in tune with your unique smell??

Your baby’s sense of smell is developed by ~24 weeks gestation, meaning that they can recognize their mom’s smell WAYYY early on.

Pretty amazing!

It’s the 3rd sense to develop (following behind touch and hearing), and it will continue to mature as your baby gets older. 

Let’s fill this time of growth with exposure to a positive, feel-good scent!

“Little” things matter

I had a conversation with a NICU mom experiencing a lot of guilt and shame about leaving her baby at night time.

She was experiencing an overwhelming fear that her baby wasn’t going to remember her the next day.

One of the first things I mentioned was using a scent cloth at night time.

Her immediate response…tears.

These things matter.

She wore a small piece of cloth in her bra during the day, sometimes she even placed a swaddle blanket over her during the day, and then the baby would be swaddled or near that scent cloth at night time.

The benefit of mom’s scent with NICU babies

So. Many. Benefits!

Scent cloths can be a key part of bonding and neuroprotective care.

Mom’s smell can support a baby’s sensory responses, self-regulation skills, AND medical stability.

Research shows mom’s smell….

If you can’t physically be at your baby’s bedside, ask about using a scent cloth. 

If you’re leaving and you won’t be back to see your baby for a couple of days…wear a scent cloth in your bra while you’re in the NICU.

Then, leave it with your baby before you leave.


This one may be a little tricky depending on which neonatal intensive care unit your baby is staying in…and what kind of resources they have available

Voice recordings!

Now, you can use voice recordings as early as 27 weeks, but research shows the most benefit (without any negative effects!) is to start at 32 weeks.

What is a maternal voice recording?

A maternal voice recording is simply a recording of mom talking, singing, or reading a book that can be played at times during the baby’s day when mom isn’t there.

“Little” things matter!

Here’s a little story.

There was a mom exposed to COVID-19 who was required to quarantine for 14 days.

She had just established breastfeeding, and was used to being next to her son every day.

Our music therapist worked with mom to create a recording of her reading a book and talking to her son. She put the track on an iPod nano that stayed at the baby’s bedside.

Y’all, so cool!!

If you have a music therapist in your unit who has access to voice recording equipment, and is trained as a NICU music therapist, they can be an amazing resource.

And when that mom was permitted to come back into the unit, her baby picked up breast-feeding right where he left off.

AND was taking all of his feeds by mouth within a week (#praise)!

Why mom’s voice is so great…

There are so many amazing benefits of mom‘s voice proven by research, but also things I’ve witnessed in my own clinical experience…

  • 32 week babies turning their heads in response to mom‘s voice,
  • babies calming down when they hear mom at the bedside,
  • watching a baby’s heart rate come down to a normal range while mom hums quietly outside the isolette, or
  • a more stable breathing rate with exposure to mom’s quiet voice at their cares.

I’ve seen so many incredible reactions from NICU babies who hear mom’s voice.

Some research studies also say maternal voice recordings…

  • increase oxygen saturations,
  • decrease heart rate and respiration rates, 
  • increase attending behaviors, and
  • contribute to fewer episodes of feeding intolerance.

When should I use a voice recording?

Whenever we think about adding something to a NICU babe’s environment, we want to be sure we’re doing it in the BEST way possible.

It’s ALWAYS important to respond to a NICU baby’s cues whenever a new experience is introduced.

Babies in the NICU have immature nervous systems, and may show signs of overstimulation of stress with too much interaction.

You may notice this most if your baby is a touch-me-not!

If you’re interested in providing a voice recording for your NICU baby, here are some guidelines to consider:

  • Keep the sound level equal to a whisper or quiet conversation.
  • Place the recording device at your baby’s midline (not in their crib or isolette)
  • If the recording is a very quiet conversation, it can be played at diaper changes as early as 23 weeks.
  • If the recording is quiet singing or reading, wait until the baby is at least 28 weeks and play around diaper changes/care times.
  • Encourage/use “motherese” on recording.
  • Play recordings when the baby is awake and parents aren’t present.
  • Play recordings at care times, during diaper changes.
  • Use recordings before and after painful procedures.

Save or download the guidelines below.


That’s right, I’m talking about pumping!

If you have the support, AND are able to pump breastmilk for your NICU baby, you are doing a wonderful (and selfless!) thing.

Whew, it is NOT easy. It’s a straight up sacrifice!

This is a difficult recommendation to make, because I know there are tons of NICU moms out there who make the decision to…

  1. not pump,
  2. stop pumping, or
  3. never had the choice to begin with.

If pumping is not part of your personal NICU journey, that’s okay! If you have a micro preemie, they are likely receiving donor breast milk as part of their nutrition journey before starting a gradual transition to formula.

If connecting yourself to a standard, electric breast pump is overwhelming, and you’re looking for freedom, but also want to continue providing milk…I recommend researching a COMPLETELY WIRELESS breast pump option. 

I did a full review of my experience with the Elvie pump here.

Benefits of breast milk

There are so many amazing benefits to breast milk! Especially for babies in the NICU.

EVERY TIME you wake up in the middle of the night to hook yourself up to your breast pump, you are doing something to support your baby’s brain, gut, and developmental outcomes.

Grab a snack, turn on an episode of New Girl, and be REALLY proud of yourself!

OR…get a good pumping bra and sleep sitting up (me!).

To all the pumping mamas out there, here’s a reminder of just SOME of the amazing benefits your milk has for your baby.

    • Your milk is easier for your baby to digest.
    • The make up of your milk is created just for your baby!
    • Helps your baby fight infection
  • Helps line your baby’s gut with protective properties!

YOU have an incredible impact on your baby’s NICU life. 

Even when you’re not there. 

  1. Wear a scent cloth to leave at your baby’s bed while you’re gone.
  2. Create a quiet audio recording of your voice to be played at care times.
  3. Pump breast milk knowing it’s nourishing your baby’s brain. 

Does your NICU recommend any of these to support families?


Williamson S, McGrath JM. What Are the Effects of the Maternal Voice on Preterm Infants in the NICU? Adv Neonatal Care. 2019 Aug;19(4):294-310. doi: 10.1097/ANC.0000000000000578. PMID: 31335378. 


Pineda R, Raney M, Smith J. Supporting and enhancing NICU sensory experiences (SENSE): Defining developmentally-appropriate sensory exposures for high-risk infants. Early Hum Dev. 2019 Jun;133:29-35. doi: 10.1016/j.earlhumdev.2019.04.012. Epub 2019 May 1. PMID: 31054467.


Hane, A. A., Myers, M. M., Hofer, M. A., Ludwig, R. J., Halperin, M. S., Austin, J., … & Welch, M. G. (2015). Family nurture intervention improves the quality of maternal caregiving in the neonatal intensive care unit: evidence from a randomized controlled trial. Journal of Developmental & Behavioral Pediatrics, 36(3), 188-196.

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