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What Parents Need to Know About the NICU

Updated: Sep 7, 2022

September is NICU awareness month. In an effort to promote awareness, educate, and support parents experiencing the challenges of the NICU, Bonsie interviewed a NICU Occupational Therapist and the mom of a NICU baby herself.


Photo of Katie Ross standing in wooded area during fall
Photo of Katie Ross

Katie Ross is a mama and certified neonatal occupational therapist with a heart for NICU babies and their families. She supports parents by providing them with the tools they need to navigate infant development in the NICU and care for their babies with confidence.


Katie cares for her son in the NICU
Katie cares for her son in the NICU

The NICU can feel like a rollercoaster for parents. We know every baby and situation is unique. However, here’s some general advice from Katie to help you get involved in your child’s care.


1. Ask questions!


The NICU is full of new phrases, diagnoses, fears, concerns, questions and people. And sometimes it’s hard to know what to ask when someone says,“Do you have any questions?”. Especially when you’ve just walked through the whirlwind of visiting your baby in the NICU.


There are so many things to wonder about and so many questions to ask related to the medical equipment and your baby’s medical status. Knowing what to ask is tough! If you have a hard time thinking of things in the moment, it can be helpful to jot questions down in a journal, or keep a running list in the notes app on your phone.


A father gives his NICU baby a hand hug
A father gives his NICU baby a hand hug

Here are some possible questions to help you get started.


  • Could you walk me through her lines and tubes?

  • When can I hold him?

  • When will you do her next diaper change?

  • Is there anything I can do to help decrease their pain and stress while they’re here?

  • When does the team meet to talk about his current progress and goals?


2. Hold your baby skin-to-skin, if you can.


Skin-to-skin holding is also called “kangaroo care”. It’s a way to hold your baby where their naked body (except for a diaper and hat) is in direct contact with your skin. Typically this means your baby is placed upright on your chest and a blanket or robe is wrapped around you.


Skin-to-skin has AMAZING benefits and is one of the best things you can do for your baby while they’re in the NICU.


Benefits of holding your baby skin-to-skin include:

  • More stable temperature

  • Stable heart rate and oxygen rate

  • Better weight gain

  • Increased milk supply

  • Increased parent confidence

  • Earlier discharge

  • More regular breathing rate

  • Better bonding and attachment


Your touch, your skin, your smells, your voice, and your overall presence is helping your baby not only cope with the new world they’re living in, but supporting their medical goals also!


Keep in mind, there are some little ones who are not quite able to tolerate the transfer for kangaroo care depending on their medical stability, age, or medical equipment. If you’re not able to hold your baby yet, try giving them a hand hug by cupping their body with your hands.


Talk to your nurse about what kangaroo care options there are within your baby’s unit—even some of the sickest and most fragile babies can be transferred to their mom or dad’s chest for snuggles.


3. Get involved in your baby’s care.


As a neonatal occupational therapist, I spend a lot of time changing diapers, giving baths, soothing, and swaddling babies. NICU babies often require a lot of medical care, and getting involved may mean you’re learning tasks like getting a blood pressure, taking their temperature, giving them a wipe down bath, changing a diaper the size of a credit card, or positioning them comfortably in their incubator or crib.


You may be experiencing all the feels! It can be intimidating. I want to encourage you…


...getting involved in your baby’s care is one of the best ways for you to grow confident, support your baby’s overall development, and begin to step into that parenting role.


You are so incredibly special for your baby (your baby definitely prefers you over your medical providers!). If you’re nervous to try something, talk with your baby’s bedside nurse or therapist. They’re there to help you succeed. You can do this.


A mother holds her NICU baby
A mother holds her NICU baby

4. If possible, build up your milk supply.


One of the best things NICU moms can do for their baby is provide breast milk. Breast milk has a ton of incredible benefits for babies, but especially for babies in the NICU. If you have the support, AND are able to pump breastmilk for your NICU baby, you are doing a wonderful thing.


All feeding journeys are important. I know there are many NICU moms out there who make the decision not to pump, stop pumping, or maybe never had the choice to begin with. I remember exclusively pumping with my first son, and then pumped again after my second son went to the NICU. It’s not easy. BUT, there’s a beautiful purpose.


If you are hoping to build a milk supply for your baby, here are some tips:


Start pumping within 6-8 hours after birth, if possible

  • Pump at least 8 times a day (every 2-3 hours).

  • Hold your baby skin-to-skin and pump right after.

  • Establishing and maintaining a milk supply can be challenging. Ask to speak with your unit's lactation consultant if you have questions.

  • Lean on your support system.


It’s difficult to ask for help in tough seasons of life. If there are friends or family eager to help with meals, babysitting, pet sitting or other areas of difficulty, let them help.


Unsure what you need help with? Ask for a meal train, for laundry to be done, for kids to get picked up from school, or for help cleaning the house. If you don’t have a village near you, use other services that can help ease the burden of everyday life in the NICU. Some ideas could be using a meal delivery service, having groceries delivered, or hiring a nanny or house cleaner for a short period of time.


If you’re in need of financial assistance, ask to talk with your NICU social worker. They are often familiar with resources in your area and may be able to help you with financial needs like gas or meals.


Navigating the NICU is different for everyone. Take it one day at a time and hopefully these tips make this season of life a little bit easier.


Graphic of Hand Hug Club: a baby between a mother's hands
Hand Hug Club by Blooming Littles

For more information and guidance from Katie, check out her blog:



Instagram:



Thank you, Katie!


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