Parenting Your Baby in Neonatal Intensive Care

Expert advice on parenting your premature infant as you prepare to bring your baby home.

By Jeanette Zaichkin

Parenting your baby in neonatal intensive care is a unique experience - it is happening to YOU, and no one else's experience will be the same as yours.

My advice is to be kind to yourself and to your partner, and recognize that people act differently under stress. Some parents feel challenged and grow stronger through this neonatal intensive care journey, while other parents withdraw and need to be cared for by others until the crisis has passed. Find a trusted and supportive listener who understands your good days as well as your very bad days. It is most important to take care of yourself, so that you can have energy to care for your baby.

From the very beginning, find out what you can do to participate in your baby's intensive care. Establish a good working partnership with the physicians, nurses, and other people on your baby's neonatal intensive care team. Remember that everyone is working toward the same goals -- sending your baby home in the best possible shape and supporting your family through homecoming and beyond.

Coping with the neonatal intensive care experience is easier if you are empowered by knowledge about what is happening to your baby. Ask many questions of your baby's care providers. Continue to ask questions even after your baby comes home.

Parents who are actively involved in care of their babies in neonatal intensive care help to influence a healthier outcome for their child. For doctors, nurses and therapists in the NICU, taking the time to establish an honest relationship with parents is very important to developing a good partnership. Professionals need to be clear right from the start that they do not always have all the answers, but they are willing to listen to every question and concern. Professionals know that parenting is extremely important in the baby's convalescence. Parents need to be involved in their baby's care and members of the baby's care team need to encourage parents to learn about their baby.

Make preparations before you bring your baby home from intensive care. Homecoming for you and your baby will be less stressful if you were able to visit your baby often and participate in his care. Don't try to learn everything all at once right before homecoming. Try to room-in with your baby for a day or two before you bring the baby home so that you can ask questions while help is only a few steps away.

Some parents find homecoming just as stressful as the first days in neonatal intensive care, so remember to simplify your life as much as possible. Use your support people. A trusted friend or relative can be a lifesaver, even if it means being available for something as simple as staying with the baby for a moment while you walk around the block or take a shower. Find a supportive pediatrician and make sure your community resources and follow-up appointments are lined up before you come home.

Most important, take a moment every day for a quiet talk with your baby. Don't worry if you feel clumsy as a parent at first, or if you're not madly in love with your baby all at once. Your relationship will build as you spend time together as parent and child. Congratulate yourself for doing many things well and for learning new parenting skills everyday.

Jeanette Zaichkin is the editor of Newborn Intensive Care: What Every Parent Needs to Know. She has been a neonatal nurse for more than 30 years. She received her Master's degree from University of Washington. Jeanette is the neonatal outreach coordinator at Seattle Children's Hospital, where she facilitates education for health care providers caring for sick and premature infants and their families in Washington, Alaska, Montana and Idaho.