September is Neonatal Intensive Care (NICU) Awareness Month. Worldwide, approximately 15 million babies, or 11%, are born preterm every year, and many of them experience a NICU stay. We spoke to the experts for some top tips for parents who have a baby in the NICU.
Significant advances in neonatal care over the past decade are helping fragile, preterm infants get healthy, grow, and go home from the NICU. They become healthy toddlers, children, and adults.
Today, many hospitals with level III and IV NICUs and small baby units are successfully treating babies born as early as 22 weeks.
NICU Awareness Month: Top Five Tips for NICU Parents
If you have a baby in the NICU or are at high risk for preterm birth, it is essential to become informed about what to expect.
Dr. Erin Hamilton Spence, a practicing neonatologist and director of clinical education and professional development for Prolacta Bioscience, offers her top tips for NICU parents.
1. Ask questions
Step into your role as an advocate for your baby. Get to know your baby’s treatment team – the doctors, nurses and therapists working day and night to provide your preemie with excellent care.
Adjusting to life in the NICU is difficult for every family. At first, unfamiliar equipment, noises, language, and routines will bombard you. Even once they become familiar, the NICU isn’t where you want to be. Take notes about the hardest or strangest parts – the sights, sounds, smells, and feelings.
Use these notes to ask questions of your NICU care team members who have created a safe space for you. Talk through it with another person if the answer doesn’t make sense.
No matter how busy we may seem, we love hearing parents’ questions and concerns. A couple of effective ways to introduce difficult topics include, “Here’s what’s keeping me up at night,” and “Here’s what’s on my wish list today.”
2. Cuddle up
Perform skin-to-skin care, also known as kangaroo care, with your baby as often and for as long as possible. This gentle touch can help your baby regulate temperature, heart rate and breathing, and it’s also good for you!
Premature babies who have regular skin-to-skin care grow and go home more quickly, as well as have better overall health in the long run. Benefits for mom include increased milk production, decreased anxiety, improved sleep, and decreased risk for post traumatic birth syndrome.
The skilled hands and hearts of your NICU care team will guide you to your safest close connection. Some infants can only tolerate light touches or pressure, typically on their head or feet.
When you do get to hold your baby, they will be tummy down on your bare chest as you recline in a chair or lay on a bed. Your NICU team will cover you both with a warm blanket. Your body becomes your baby’s incubator! Your baby can hear and feel the comforting and familiar sensations of your heart beating and your breathing.
3. Advocate for all breast milk nutrition
Not only is your touch important, but your baby’s feeding plan also relies on you. For premature babies, breast milk is more than food – it’s personalised medicine. Breastfeed your baby if you can. If you are unable to provide your own breast milk, advocate for donor breast milk as the next best thing.
Premature babies have huge nutritional needs their mother’s milk alone can’t meet. In fact, preemies require up to 40% more calories and protein than full-term babies to make up for the growth they missed in the third trimester.
To meet this need, your NICU team will add a nutritional fortifier to your breast milk or donor breast milk. There are two kinds of fortifiers used in the NICU: cow milk-based and human milk-based. Both are labeled as a “human milk fortifier,” but they are not the same.
Cow milk-based fortifiers are linked to an increased risk of life-threatening and life-limiting complications in premature infants. One hundred percent breast milk-based fortifiers, like those made by Prolacta, are clinically proven to reduce complications, improve health and get premature babies home sooner.
The major difference between cow milk-based and human milk-based products is the composition – notably, the bioactive components that are unique to human milk.8 Bioactivity is thought to support infants’ immunity, development, growth, and long-term health.
4. Remember it takes a village
You’re not expected to do this alone. Meet other NICU parents and talk about what you’re going through. Many hospitals offer parent support programs to provide comfort and peace of mind to NICU families.
You can connect with other NICU families in the Peek-a-boo ICU Facebook community, a forum for open and honest communication designed to make the NICU journey as smooth as possible. The free Peekaboo ICU app can also help you navigate your NICU experience. Additionally, families can find an advocacy partner for their struggles with the Hand to Hold organisation.
Reach out to your tribe. Now is the time to ask friends and family for help. Allow others to support and care for you. They are likely to be grateful for the opportunity to offer support however they can.
5. Find ways to care for yourself
Everyone wants to hold the baby, but who will hold the mother? Now is the time to truly embrace yourself as well as your baby. The stronger and healthier you keep your body and mind, the better equipped you will be to connect with your baby.
The behaviours that are healthy during pregnancy will help you recover from delivery. Priorities for the immediate postpartum period include sleep, healthy meals, and patience with your own healing.
Having a baby in the NICU is not an easy journey, but with the right information and the right support, you can help give your baby a bright and healthy future.
Dr. Erin Hamilton Spence is a Practicing Neonatologist, Director of Clinical Education and Professional Development for Prolacta Bioscience with more than 14 years of clinical experience as a board-certified neonatologist and lactation consultant.