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Bonding with your premature baby in the NICU

0-3 months

A neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) might seem like a difficult place to bond with your baby. But there’s a lot you can do – touching your baby, singing to her and helping to care for her.

Bonding and attachment basics

Attachment is the strong, long-lasting bond between a baby and the person or people who care for him.

Bonding and attachment happens over time, but it’s built on everyday moments – things like smiling at your baby, touching her, using loving words and responding to her needs. Bonding grows at different rates with different parents and babies. It’s a two-way process between you and your baby.

It’s normal for it to take time for you to feel fully bonded with your baby.

Attachment, bonding and a warm relationship with you help your baby feel safe and secure. This lays the foundation for all areas of your baby’s development.

Bonding with premature babies in the NICU

You might worry that you won’t be able to bond with your premature baby in the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU).

It’s true that you’re separated from your baby because he needs to be cared for in the hospital. You might not be able to see and hold him early on, or even visit him as much as you’d like because of distance or older children. The worry about your baby’s health might also get you down.

But there’s a lot you can do in the NICU to feel close to your baby and develop a bond.

Tips for bonding in the NICU

Even though your baby was born early, your baby ‘knows’ you – your voice and your smell. Your presence will give your baby a sense of familiarity and comfort. This is a great starting point for bonding.

Here are some ideas to help you and your baby bond while she’s in the NICU.

Touching and holding
Touching, holding and massaging your baby can help your baby to feel cared for and supported. For example, you could hold your baby’s hand or cup his feet. If your baby is ready, you can do kangaroo care – holding your baby skin to skin.

Learning your premature baby’s body language
Premature baby body language is different from that of full-term babies. But over time, you’ll learn how to tune into your baby and know whether she wants closeness, or whether she’s had enough stimulation. The medical staff can help you start reading your baby’s signs.

Playing with your premature baby
Playing with your baby helps:

  • you get to know each other
  • your baby’s brain develop
  • your baby feel loved and secure
  • your baby learn about relationships and comfort
  • your baby learn about the physical environment he can see, hear, feel and smell.

While your baby is in the NICU, you can start by making faces, singing, smiling and reading to her – always paying close attention to your baby’s body language, so you know when she’s had enough.

Sharing your smell
Holding your baby is a fantastic way to help your baby recognise your smell. If you can’t do that yet, you could put something that smells of you in your baby’s incubator – for example, a t-shirt.

Check that it’s OK with your baby’s doctor first. Avoid using perfume or scented deodorant because these can interfere with your baby getting to know your smell.

Being predictable
Doing things in a slightly structured way each time helps your baby recognise that you’re the special consistent person in his day. For example, saying or doing the same thing each time you’re about to do kangaroo care gives your baby the cue that something pleasant is about to happen. He’ll start to expect and feel secure about you and your way of being with him.

Expressing breastmilk
Breastmilk is the best food for your baby. Expressing breastmilk for your baby is something that only you can do at the very time you might be feeling like there’s nothing you can do.

Caring for baby
Your baby’s care team will show you how to help care for your baby. You can help wash your baby’s face, change nappies or reposition your baby. By doing this, you become a part of your baby’s life and she’ll learn to recognise you. You’ll also learn how to handle your baby in the ways she likes best.

Your baby will learn that he can rely on you to help him feel calm.

Repeated human contact through touch, cuddling, talking, singing and facial expressions will help your baby’s brain to develop. These actions make the brain produce chemicals and hormones that make a baby grow emotionally and physically.

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Raising Children Network is supported by the Australian Government. Member organisations are the Parenting Research Centre and the Murdoch Childrens Research Institute with The Royal Children’s Hospital Centre for Community Child Health.

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