Parenting in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU)Parenting in the NICU

Woman looking at baby in incubator.

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 hand-washing techniques before entering the area. Sometimes, masks are needed. Occasionally, during a procedure, or when the hospital staff are making "rounds" with other families, 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 hand-washing 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. It helps the baby feel secure and loved. Once a baby's condition is stable, parents are encouraged to hold him or her, especially skin-to-skin. 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 NICU 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 react to these feelings in different ways. Some find it easy to talk about their concerns. Others keep their feelings inside. Some parents may not want to get close to their baby, or might want to wait to name their baby. Coping with all of these feelings and emotions is often easier with the help of support from others who have been through the same kind of thing. Be sure to ask about parent support groups and hospital staff members (for example, social workers and counselors) who can help. Most parents find that time away from the NICU can help them cope and deal with their emotions. 

It is normal for parents to feel anger, guilt, sadness or other negative emotions. But sometimes these feelings become really strong and you might need some help sorting them out. If you have these feelings longer than 2 weeks after your baby's birth, or if they get worse, or if they keep you from caring for your baby or yourself, you need to get professional help. If you have thoughts of hurting yourself or others, you need to get help right away. Call your healthcare provider and make sure they know that this is a serious problem. Or, call 911 (or your local emergency services) or go to the emergency department at your local hospital.