Nurturing Your NICU Infant

Comfort for Both Mom and Baby

By Amy E. Tracy

My first son, Daniel, was born 12 weeks early and weighed only 1 pound, 11 ounces. When I first saw him in the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU), he was paralyzed by drugs, hooked to a respirator and covered with wires. The doctors and nurses said it would probably be weeks before I could hold him and months before I could nurse him.

Since I couldn’t “mother” my baby in ways most new mothers do, I found other ways to nurture and protect him – and to help me feel more like his mom. Aside from making me feel better, the caregiving I did for Daniel also helped him.

“One of the most important factors in how well a baby grows and develops is the parents’ involvement,” says Dr. Jane E. Brazy, a neonatologist at the Center for Perinatal Care at Meriter Hospital in Madison, Wis. “Parents play an important role in their baby’s hospital care.”

But when your baby is so sick, what can you do? Just being there, letting your baby hear and smell you and placing your hand on your baby’s head are things that comfort both mom and baby, says Dr. Brazy. As your child’s health improves, you can do even more. Here are some suggestions:

Create a “Nest” for Your Baby – Your baby, accustomed to the womb’s cushioned environment, will feel more secure with boundaries. Place rolled receiving blankets or cloth diapers around your baby’s arms, legs and head.

Pump and Store Your Breast Milk – Your breast milk is uniquely designed with nutrients to help your premature baby grow and antibodies that fight infection. Smaller preemies often can’t eat until their health improves, but you can pump and store your milk in a freezer for later feedings. This is something only a mother can do for her baby.

Make a “Home Away From Home” – For the first few weeks that Daniel was in the NICU, I didn’t feel like he was mine. After all, the nurses and doctors seemed to know more about him than I did. But as my husband and I began decorating Daniel’s bedside with family photographs, a stuffed lobster my parents sent during a trip to Maine and a tiny Buffalo Bills shirt (my husband’s favorite football team), the nursery seemed more “homey,” and we began to feel more like a family. Nurses say decorating your baby’s bedside also helps the hospital staff get to know your family better.

Let Your Baby Know You’re Not Far Away – When Kathy Witowski of Chicago, Ill., returned to work a few weeks after her son, Jack, was born at 25 weeks, she left baby washcloths she’d slept with in his bed for a familiar scent. Jack also listened to audiocassette tapes of his mom reading Curious George books. Cotton balls with breast milk can also be comforting.

Keep in Close Contact – Theresa Kledzik, a neonatal nurse at Memorial Hospital in Colorado Springs, Colo., encourages parents to call, day or night, with specific questions about their baby. “Don’t just ask how he’s doing,” she says. “Ask what position he’s in, if he’s using a pacifier and how long he’s been sleeping. This will make you feel more in touch with your baby.”

Nurture Yourself – An early delivery is incredibly stressful – to say the least. You worry about your baby’s health, the medical bills, other family members and what the future might hold. But to take care of your baby, you need to take care of yourself. Eat well, take vitamins, get rest, exercise and take breaks.

Be Your Baby’s Voice – “One of the most important things a mother can provide for her child is a voice,” Kledzik says. If you notice your baby becomes agitated by the sound of the nurse’s radio, ask that it be turned off. If you have concerns about caregiving, express them. If you have questions, ask them. You can even post notes about your baby’s likes and dislikes (noise volume, positioning, lighting, handling) near the bedside.

Get to Know Your Baby – “With the support of the staff, you can learn about your baby – what consoles him, how he feeds, his facial expressions – and you’ll feel much closer to your baby,” Kledzik says. Skin-to-skin contact, or kangaroo care, is another way to foster your parent-child relationship. Place your diaper-clad infant on your bare chest with a blanket lightly covering you both. Also, ask the nurses about infant massage.

Though nurturing in the NICU isn’t easy, it is time well spent getting to know one another. And when that day you’ve been waiting for arrives – your baby’s homecoming – you’ll be ready.

About the Author: Amy E. Tracy is the co-author of Your Premature Baby and Child: Helpful Answers and Advice For Parents. Available through PreemieCare

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