Visiting your baby in the NICU
NICU - visiting baby; Neonatal intensive care - visiting
Your baby is staying in the hospital NICU. NICU stands for neonatal intensive care unit. While there, your baby will receive special medical care. Learn what to expect when you visit your baby in the NICU.
What is a NICU?
The NICU is a special unit in the hospital for babies born preterm, very early, or who have some other serious medical condition. Most babies born very early will need special care after birth.
Your delivery may have taken place in a hospital that has a NICU. If not, you and your baby may have been moved to a hospital with a NICU to receive special care.
If your newborn needs to be admitted to the neonatal intensive care unit, or NICU, a group of different medical professionals will be there to help. Here's a rundown of some of the consultants and support staff you can expect to meet in the NICU. Each person who works in the NICU has a different specialty: Your bedside NICU nurses work most closely with your baby, providing care and observing closely for important changes. A neonatologist specializes in the health problems of newborns. They supervise and coordinate care. A cardiologist is trained to diagnose and treat diseases of the heart and blood vessels. If a baby has a heart defect, a cardiovascular surgeon will perform the surgery to fix it. An infectious disease specialist treats babies who have serious infections, including infections of the blood, brain, or spinal cord. A neurologist diagnoses and treats conditions of the brain, nerves, and muscles. You might see a neurologist if your baby has seizures, or is born with a nervous system condition like spina bifida. When the problem needs to be corrected with surgery, a neurosurgeon will perform the operation. An endocrinologist diagnoses and treats hormone problems, such as diabetes. Gastroenterologists are expert at treating digestive problems of the stomach and intestines. A hematologist-oncologist treats blood disorders and cancer. An infant might see this type of doctor for a problem with blood clotting. A nephrologist focuses on diseases of the kidneys and urinary system. If your baby was born with a kidney problem, you will talk to this doctor about treatments, and possibly the need for surgery. Pulmonologists treat newborn lung problems, such as respiratory distress syndrome. You might see this doctor if your baby was born with a breathing condition. Then you'll work with a respiratory therapist to treat the problem. If you had a very high-risk pregnancy, you'll work with a maternal-fetal medicine specialist. This doctor can help if your baby was born prematurely, or you had twins or other multiples. Babies who are born with eye defects see an ophthalmologist, a doctor who diagnoses and treats eye problems. If your newborn needs x-rays, an x-ray technician will take the test, and a radiologist will read the results. Sometimes babies are born with or at risk for developmental delays. If that is the case, a developmental pediatrician will test your child, and help you find the right care once you leave the NICU. The pediatrician may recommend that you see an occupational or physical therapist to assess your baby's reflexes, movement, and feeding. While you're in the NICU, you'll also see a neonatal nurse practitioner. This specialist will work closely with your doctor to make sure your baby gets just the right care. Being in the NICU can feel scary and new at first. Don't be afraid to ask questions. Your NICU medical team is there to care for your baby, and to make sure you're prepared to take over that care once you get home.
Very Early Babies Look Different
When babies are born early, they have not yet finished growing. So, they will not look like a baby that was carried a full 9 months.
- A preterm infant will be smaller and will weigh less than a full-term infant.
- The baby may have thin, smooth, shiny skin that you can see through.
- The skin may look red because you can see blood in the vessels underneath.
Other things you may notice:
- Body hair (lanugo)
- Less body fat
- Floppy muscles and less movement
What to Expect in the NICU
Your baby will be put in an enclosed, see-through plastic crib called an incubator. This special crib will:
- Keep your baby warm. Your baby will not need to be wrapped in blankets.
- Lessen the risk of an infection.
- Control the moisture in the air to keep your baby from losing water.
Your baby will wear a cap so the head will stay warm.
There will likely be tubes and wires attached to the baby. This can seem scary to new parents. They are not hurting the baby.
- Some tubes and wires are connected to monitors. They check the baby's breathing, heart rate, blood pressure, and temperature at all times.
- A tube through your baby's nose carries food into the stomach.
- Other tubes bring fluids and medicines to your baby.
- Your baby may need to wear tubes that bring extra oxygen.
- Your baby may need to be on a breathing machine (respirator).
Bonding With Your Baby in the NICU
It is normal for parents to feel nervous or scared to have a baby in the NICU. You can lessen these feelings by:
- Getting to know the team that cares for your baby
- Learning about all of the equipment
Even though your baby is inside a special crib, it is still important for you to touch your baby. Talk with the nurses about touching and talking to your baby.
- At first, you may only be able to touch your baby's skin through the openings of the incubator.
- As your baby grows and improves, you will be able to hold them and help with bathing them.
- You can also talk and sing to your baby.
Cuddling with your baby against your skin, called "kangaroo care," will also help you bond. It will not be long before you see things you would have seen had the baby been born full-term, like your baby's smile and your baby grasping your fingers.
Take Care of Yourself
After giving birth, your body will need some time to rest and recover. Your feelings may also hit highs and lows. You may feel the joy of being a new mom one moment, but anger, fear, guilt, and sadness the next.
Having a baby in the NICU is stressful enough, but these ups and downs can also be caused by hormone changes after childbirth.
In some women, the changes may lead to feeling sad and depressed. If you are having a hard time with your emotions, ask for the social worker in the NICU. Or, talk to your doctor. It is OK to ask for help.
By taking care of yourself, you are taking care of your baby too. Your baby needs your love and touch to grow and improve.
Friedman SH, Thomson-Salo F, Ballard AR. Support for the family. In: Martin RJ, Fanaroff AA, Walsh MC, eds. Fanaroff and Martin's Neonatal-Perinatal Medicine. 11th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier ; 2020:chap 42.
Hobel CJ. Obstetric complications: preterm labor and delivery, PROM, IUGR, postterm pregnancy, and IUFD. In: Hacker NF, Gambone JC, Hobel CJ, eds. Hacker & Moore's Essentials of Obstetrics and Gynecology. 6th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier; 2016:chap 12.
Last reviewed on: 10/2/2020
Reviewed by: Neil K. Kaneshiro, MD, MHA, Clinical Professor of Pediatrics, University of Washington School of Medicine, Seattle, WA. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Medical Director, Brenda Conaway, Editorial Director, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team.