Navigating the NICU
What to expect when your newborn needs special care
If you have a baby who is born too early or has serious health problems, he or she may be admitted to the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU), a hospital unit that provides around-the-clock specialized care to newborns.
The NICU can be an overwhelming place with lots of machines, hospital staff and medical terms. If you or someone close to you is pregnant, understanding what to expect if a NICU stay is required can help you focus less on the surroundings and uncertainty and more on taking care of the new baby and yourself.
Learn the ins and outs of the NICU with information from March of Dimes, the nation’s leading nonprofit that advocates for the health of all moms and babies, which partners with hospitals across the country through its NICU Family Support® program to provide in-person and online support for families with babies in the NICU.
Common NICU conditions
Babies born too early and other sick newborns may face a variety of medical issues. Among common causes for a NICU stay may include preterm birth, complications during labor and delivery, birth defects, genetic conditions or other illnesses.
Tests to expect in the NICU
Your baby may have tests and monitoring done in the NICU to determine health conditions and treatments for him or her to grow and be healthy. Some tests, like blood tests, are common. Others are just for babies with certain health conditions. Depending on his or her condition, your baby might need scans or imaging to find out what’s happening, like a CT scan, echocardiogram, MRI, ultrasound or X-ray. You can also expect various screenings for vision and hearing, and monitoring for things like weight changes and urine tests, which can tell health care providers about your baby’s overall condition.
Coping with stress in the NICU
When your baby is in the NICU, it may be hard to think about taking care of yourself. However, taking care of yourself can help you stay well and have more energy to spend time with your baby.
- Stick to a daily routine. Every day, take a shower, eat regular meals, drink plenty of water and get a good night’s sleep. As part of your routine, decide when you want to be with your baby in the NICU. Schedule breaks from the NICU. It’s OK to make time for yourself and the rest of your family.
- Follow COVID-19 protocols while connecting with other NICU families at NICU classes, in the family lounge or in the NICU hallways. They may understand what you’re experiencing and be able to offer guidance. You can find a supportive online environment that provides advice and resources, and allows you to connect with communities of other NICU families that have had similar experiences, at marchofdimes.org/online-communities.aspx.
- You may experience many emotions when your baby’s in the NICU. Talking to a counselor may help you sort through your feelings. This may be someone from the NICU staff, a social worker or your religious or spiritual leader. Sometimes it’s helpful to talk to someone trained to help you work through stress and navigate challenges like going back to work, the baby blues or postpartum depression.
Paying for your baby’s NICU stay
Health insurance helps pay for medical care. You may get health insurance from your employer, from the government or buy it on your own. If your insurance doesn’t cover all the health care costs for your baby, ask the NICU social worker or case manager about your options. A social worker can assist you with finding resources and services to help care for your baby. You can also meet with the hospital’s finance department about setting up a payment plan. A case manager may also oversee a baby’s discharge from the hospital and help set up home care services and supplies, if needed.
Learn more about the NICU and find articles and resources for your family at marchofdimes.org/NICU.
Answers at your fingertips
Having a newborn in the NICU can be overwhelming. You’re likely to have lots of questions and need access to tools that help you through the NICU stay. You can learn about NICU staff, policies, equipment and terminology on your own schedule with the March of Dimes My NICU Baby App, which provide answers, tools and support so you can focus on your baby during what is often a difficult time.
The app (available for iOS and Android devices) was developed to help parents cope with a baby’s early birth, complications like birth defects and other issues that may lead to a NICU stay. It includes features like tracking breastfeeding sessions, breast pumping and kangaroo care time, taking photos and connecting with other families with similar experiences.
Life after the NICU
It can be hard to get used to being at home with your baby after a stay in the NICU. These tips can help you adjust to life at home with your baby:
- When you have questions about your baby or your baby’s care, call your child’s pediatrician.
- Take your baby to all his or her well-child visits. These are medical checkups where your baby’s health care provider checks his or her health and development to make sure things are going well.
- Ask family members, friends and neighbors for help at home. Tell them exactly what you need them to do. For example, tell them if you need help with the laundry, running errands or taking care of your other children.
- Take extra steps to keep your baby healthy while he or she is building an immune system, especially during cold and flu season. Limit the number of visitors and only welcome those who are healthy. Ask visitors to wash their hands before touching the baby. Do not allow smoking near your child.
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