From a NICU Nurse & Doula: Empowered Parenting in the NICU

September 14, 2020

September is NICU Awareness Month and Sept. 15th is Neonatal Nurses Day. In honor of both of these we have some tips for new NICU parents from an experienced NICU nurse and doula.

I am a NICU nurse and a doula.  As a NICU nurse, I am there when babies need unexpected medical help.  As a doula, I often help to guide the natural physiologic birth process.  In both worlds, I aim to empower families. In honor of NICU Awareness Month, here is my advice to parents who are navigating the NICU experience.

When people ask me what is the hardest thing about being a NICU nurse, I tell them it is the unnatural and traumatic separation of mom and baby. NICU parents often feel insecure about how to provide care for their baby who is in such a fragile condition.  But rest assured: you are just as needed in the NICU as the medical team.

There are many ways to parent your NICU baby and build a parent/child bond.  My first piece of advice is to learn as much as you can, and establish yourself as a valued member of your baby’s care team.  Ask the nurse to teach you about what is normal and abnormal.  NICU nurses are used to repeated questions, since parents are often sleep-deprived and overwhelmed.  The NICU experience is often described as a “roller coaster”, so be adaptable and know that things will change daily with your baby’s plan of care.   

newborn baby hand in hospital band on wrist, baby in nicu, tips for parents with a baby in the nicu

Establish great communication with your baby’s care team.  Your baby will have many caregivers, and you are the one constant person for your baby.  This means that you are your baby’s best advocate.  Speak up to the nurses about things that are important to you.  Let the staff know what to call you about, and when not to call.  You are welcome to call or visit the NICU anytime, day or night.  Remember that the nurses have your baby’s best interests at heart, and try to be forgiving of miscommunication that may happen. 

Learn how to provide hands-on care for your baby.  Nurses can teach you how to take temperatures, change diapers, give baths, help your baby with a pacifier, dress your baby, breast/bottle feed, and provide developmental support.  Let your baby’s nurse know what fears you have.  It’s normal to be afraid to handle your fragile baby, but nurses want to help. 

Find a way to keep track of your baby’s progress.  One helpful method is daily journaling.  Keep it simple.  I recommend keeping track of your baby’s individual body systems, like breathing, digestion, heart, brain, eyes, and any special conditions your baby has.  Keep track of milestones and ask the nurse what your baby’s current goals are.  Sometimes the goals will change daily, and sometimes they will stay the same for weeks.

side view of baby in warmer in nicu, tips for parents with baby in nicu

Ask the nurse about holding your baby skin-to-skin (kangaroo care).  This provides many benefits for your baby.  Many parents are afraid to ask, but oftentimes babies are not too sick to be held, and will benefit from skin-to-skin time.  If your baby is too sick to be held, ask the nurse about other therapeutic touch (such as “hand hugs”-cradling your baby without holding them).

Providing breastmilk for your baby is a very valuable way of parenting in the NICU.  Babies who are sick or premature especially benefit from breastmilk.  If you plan to formula feed, consider providing breastmilk during your baby’s NICU stay.  Ask to see a lactation consultant who can educate you on the benefits of human milk and help you through the ups and downs of pumping. 

As an active participant in your baby’s care, you will soon become a confident parent who knows your baby best.  You will get through the NICU journey side by side with your baby, providing the support and love that only a parent can provide.  You’ve got this!   

Written by Corrine Aarestad, Birth Boot Camp Doula, of Wise Birth Doula Services

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