A hospital’s Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU) is a place no parent wants their baby to be unless absolutely necessary. Babies typically enter the NICU within the first hours or days after birth, and watching your fresh-from-the-womb newborn leave the safety of your care can be daunting. When a stint in the NICU is the best option for a baby’s health and safety, parents will undoubtedly have a lot of questions. Babies being alone in the NICU is a top concern for parents, so it can be reassuring to understand exactly what happens there, how it will impact your baby, and what you can do to support your baby during a NICU stay.
Are babies left alone in the NICU?
Babies born premature, who have a low birth weight, experienced a difficult birth, or have complex or urgent medical needs to address may all spend time in the NICU after birth. It may not be feasible for you as their parent to be by their side 24/7 due to visitation restrictions, postpartum recovery, or other responsibilities like work and caring for older children, but your baby won’t be alone in the NICU.
“Loneliness isn’t a concept a baby would likely know or understand,” Amanda Williams, a clinical nurse specialist at Cedars-Sinai’s Neonatal Intensive Care Unit tells Romper. Of course, that doesn’t mean that NICU babies are or should be left alone. “NICU nurses and other healthcare professionals care for babies around-the-clock, ensuring all their physical and developmental needs are met.”
Your baby may not feel lonely, per se, but they still have emotional needs to be met. Williams explains that parents are the best people to support their NICU baby in this way. “Babies know their parents’ voice, smell, and touch. They know and love their parents more than anyone else.” (See tips for how to make this happen below.)
Why human interaction is important for NICU babies
Human interaction is important for NICU babies (and all babies, really) because the experiences they have during this time will impact their brain development.
“Whether babies are born prematurely or full term, their brains are still developing. During this time, a baby’s experiences, whether they are positive or negative, help shape that development,” Dr. Christy Mumphrey, a neonatologist with Children’s Hospital New Orleans and LSU Health tells Romper.
When an infant is born prematurely, they’re in the NICU during a time when most babies would still be in the womb, explains Dr. Billie Short, chief of the Division of Neonatology at Children’s National Hospital. In the womb, they’re insulated from lights and sounds as their brains develop, so the NICU team will work to mimic that environment as much as possible.
“We reduce light exposure by covering the isolette box they need to be in for temperature support, and try to keep noise at a minimum,” Short says. “We also bundle their care time, i.e., when vital signs and other manipulations are done to minimize touching and interference with sleep states. But what is very important is bonding with the baby’s parents, allowing them time with the infant, encouraging them to talk and, when possible, to hold the baby.”
Yes, all the poking and prodding that can happen during medical care will impact a baby in the NICU, but so will the soothing voice of their caregiver and the time they spend skin-to-skin with parents.
How do you bond with a baby in the NICU?
Bonding with your baby in the NICU is incredibly important for their development, as noted above, but it can be a difficult task to navigate since every baby’s needs during this time are different. “Parents should feel empowered to ask their care team about which bonding activities would be appropriate for their baby,” Mumphrey tells Romper.
Here are a few ways experts suggest parents can bond with a baby in the NICU:
- Engage in Kangaroo care (skin-to-skin). “Even very premature infants on breathing machines can be placed on the mother or father’s bare chest with proper warming blankets,” Short says. “This has shown through several studies to be very beneficial to not only the baby, but the parents.”
- Talk, read, or sing to your baby. “Babies often recognize their parent’s voices, so speaking, reading, or singing to their baby in soft tones can be a source of comfort and bonding,” Mumphrey says.
- Get involved with baby’s care when you can. “Many NICUs allow parents to help with daily care including taking temperatures, feeding, changing diapers or clothes, etc., at some point in their NICU journey,” Mumphrey says.
In most situations, parents are encouraged to visit their NICU baby as often as possible. Around-the-clock visitation for parents is allowed in many facilities, but some will have limits around when and how many additional support visitors such as grandparents or extended family are allowed in the NICU at a time. This is mainly to limit noise, crowding, and over-stimulation.
During periods of acute illness however, excess stimulation may be stressful for NICU babies, which can lead care teams to limit interaction. However, once baby is stable, these restrictions are typically lifted as soon as possible, according to Mumphrey. “If any barriers to visitation exist for parents, they should feel comfortable discussing those with the care team to explore possible solutions,” she explains.
What to do if you’re worried about your baby being alone in the NICU
“It is natural for parents to feel anxious after leaving their baby in the NICU and good communication with the care team is extremely important in helping calm any worries,” Mumphrey tells Romper. As Mumphrey puts it, “the NICU does not sleep,” so you should feel confident reaching out to check on your baby, ask questions, or seek support for yourself at any time, day or night.
Some NICUs also rely on technology to help ease parents’ concerns. “In our NICU we use The NicView™ camera system, which is located near the baby’s crib or isolette and allows parents to see their baby in real time through a secure online web portal,” Short tells Romper. “This technology helps parents feel more connected to their baby when they cannot be in the NICU. It also helps extended family feel connected when they haven't been able to be present.”
Be there for your baby in whatever way you can in order to bond with your NICU baby and ease your fears about them being alone. But above all else, prioritize your mental health, take breaks when you need to, and don’t be afraid to ask for help.
In terms of additional support for NICU parents, it can be helpful to talk to parents who have been there. “There are parent support groups in many hospitals and online,” Williams says. “NICU graduate parents understand better than anyone else what you are going through.”
Dr. Christy Mumphrey, Children’s Hospital New Orleans and LSU Health Neonatologist
Dr. Billie Short, chief of the Division of Neonatology at Children’s National Hospital
Amanda Williams, MSN, RN, CNS, Clinical Nurse Specialist, Cedars-Sinai Neonatal Intensive Care Unit