What You Need to Know When Your Baby is in the NICU

Advice for parents and professionals from the author of Newborn Intensive Care

An interview with Jeanette Zaichkin

What advice do you have for those parenting their babies in the NICU?

Remember that this is a unique experience - it is happening to YOU, and no one else's experience will be the same as yours. Find a trusted and supportive listener who is understanding of your good days as well as your very bad days. Be kind to yourself and to your partner, and recognize that people act differently under stress. Some feel challenged and grow stronger through this journey, while others withdraw and need to be cared for by others until the crisis has passed. It is most important to take care of yourself, so that you can have energy to care for your baby.

Coping with the 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 and continue to ask questions even after your baby comes home. From the very beginning, find out what you can do to participate in your baby's care. Establish a good working partnership with the physicians, nurses, and other people on your baby's care team and 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.

What advice do you have for parents as they prepare to bring their babies home?

If you were able to visit your baby often and participate in his care, homecoming will be less stressful than if you 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. Find a supportive pediatrician and make sure your community resources and follow-up appointments are lined up before you come home. Some parents find homecoming just as stressful as the first days in intensive care, so remember to simplify your life as much as possible and 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.

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.

What can professionals do in the NICU to assist new parents in caring for their premature babies?

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. 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. Professionals need to remember that parenting is extremely important in the baby's convalescence. Babies whose parents are actively involved in care help to influence a healthier outcome for their child.

Jeanette Zaichkin is the author of Understanding the NICU: What Parents of Preemies and other Hospitalized Newborns Need to Know. She was a clinical nurse specialist for the Northwest Regional Perinatal Program at the University of Washington in Seattle. As the person who provided education and resources for health care professionals in the region, she fielded many phone calls from nurses, physicians, and parents who were looking for an up-to-date resource for parents about the neonatal intensive care experience.