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Parenting in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU)

Parenting in the NICU

Picture of a nurse holding a baby in the hospital nursery

In most cases, you can be with your baby in the NICU at any time. The staff of the NICU will give you instructions on special handwashing techniques before entering the area. Sometimes, masks are needed. Occasionally, during a procedure, or when the hospital staff are making "rounds," parents may be asked to wait for a few minutes before coming into the area. Although most NICUs permit visitation of babies by other family members, limiting visitors is a good idea. Many sick and premature babies are very susceptible to infection. Siblings should be carefully checked for signs of colds or other illness and be helped with handwashing before visiting their baby brother or sister.

Most parents find that becoming involved with their baby's care gives them a sense of control and helps them become closer to their baby. This is also important for the baby, helping the baby feel secure and loved. Once a baby's condition is stable, parents are encouraged to hold and rock him/her. Staff in the NICU can show you how to care for your baby in many ways. Learning these aspects of care is helpful in preparing you to take your baby home.

Emotions and responses

Having a baby in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit can be a shock for many parents. Few parents expect complications of pregnancy or their baby to be sick or premature. It is quite natural to have many different emotions as you try to cope with the difficulties of a sick baby.

Some common responses to the experience of having a baby in the NICU may include the following:

  • Shock over the unexpected birth
  • Mother's physical weakness after birth
  • Disappointment over not having a healthy baby
  • Feelings of helplessness
  • Fear about procedures and tests
  • Separation from baby
  • Anger at self and others
  • Feelings of guilt over things done or not done
  • Crying, sadness, emotional upset
  • Fears of the future, worries about long-term outcome

Parents respond to these feelings in different ways. Some openly express their concerns, while others keep their feelings inside. Some parents may be hesitant to develop a close relationship with their baby, or delay naming the baby. Coping with all of these feelings and emotions is often easier with the help of support from others who have been through the experience. Be sure to ask about parent support groups and hospital staff members (i.e., social workers, counselors) who can help.

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