Some babies need extra medical care when they are born. Maybe they are born a bit early, or they emerge with a special medical need, or maybe they’re just having trouble adjusting to life outside the womb. Here’s what you need to know to navigate a NICU (newborn intensive care nursery) stay.

Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU)

The name may sound scary but it’s where babies who need special care can be closely monitored and be supported in their growth and development. A whole host of newborn specialists provide care including doctors (neonatologists),  NICU nurses, nurse practitioners, nutritionists, social workers, specialists in breastfeeding, and respiratory therapists, to name a few. Each specific expert provides something your baby uniquely needs.

As baby’s parent, you’re always welcome to be with baby in the NICU; some facilities have remote video monitoring for when you can’t be at the hospital. Ask the care providers about the specific goals and expectations for your baby. Most NICU’s provide access for visiting parents at any time of day.

Navigating Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU) Care

Use these tips to ensure your baby is getting the best possible care:

  • Keep a notepad of questions you want to ask and bring them up during your visit
  • Keep asking “why?” until you fully understand what baby’s care team is sharing with you
  • Ask team members to explain medical terms you don’t understand, or check your understanding with them
  • Keep a journal or notepad to track baby’s milestones, discussions with care providers, and any information you need and retain lasting memories for your growing family

Get to know the expectations and the routine of the unit:

  • What are the visiting policies and any specific hours or restrictions?
  • When is the best time to speak with a care provider?
  • How can you nurse or feed your baby with you own human milk?
  • Can you give your baby a bath?
  • What can you bring from home to ensure baby feels your presence when you can’t be there?

Talk with the nurses about the benefits of human milk for your baby as it provides a higher level of nutrition and protection from illnesses and diseases, which can be really beneficial to a baby born a little early.

Human milk is full of antibodies that protect your baby. This is especially essential for premature babies, who are more vulnerable to disease. If your baby is not yet eating, start pumping your milk. Pumping 8-12 times a day will help get your milk supply ready so baby can start feeding with mom’s own milk. If you can’t provide your own milk, ask about donor human milk. Many NICU’s provide this option because of how essential human milk is for babies.

Caring for Your NICU Baby & Yourself

An important aspect of caring for an infant in the NICU is recognizing and protecting the vulnerability of your baby, and others like them. Be mindful of infection and always wash your hands before holding or touching your baby. Please avoid visiting if you feel sick. A small cold for you can be much more serious to a newborn.

Take the time to take care of yourself, and your partner and other children if baby has siblings. This is a stressful time for families simply because you’re separated and you’re concerned about your newborn’s health and development. You may experience many different emotions during this time. Please know that this is normal. With all the focus on the baby, parents often forget about themselves. Consider connecting to a support group or connect with other NICU parents. You can find an online group at or a

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Jennifer Peterman, RSN, RN, IBCLC is a clinical practice leader on postpartum and well baby hospital units. She is also a certified lactation consultant.

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