A neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) can be a strange and difficult environment for your baby, you and your family. Here are some tips to help you make the NICU as much like a nursery as possible and look after yourself while your baby is there.

Making the NICU space your own

1. Make the space around your baby more personal
You can bring things from home, use people’s gifts, or put up photos of yourselves and your baby’s siblings to make the space around your baby different from that of other babies. But keep in mind that too much clutter can make caring for your baby difficult.

2. Create a private space
Sitting in the NICU, you’re usually facing outwards. That means everyone who goes by can see you. If you want some private time but also want to stay beside your baby, turn your chair around so that you face inwards. Then you can close your eyes and relax, read, sing to your baby or just have some quiet time.

3. Celebrate special occasions
Hospital staff and volunteers often put a lot of effort into special occasions. For example, Santa visits at Christmas and staff put up decorations. You could celebrate a special day like a family birthday, religious celebration or your baby’s expected birth date by putting up decorations yourselves. Taking photos or a video of the celebration day also adds to your memories.

Celebrating a special day can give you the chance to shake off anxiety, while you think about buying or making something special for your baby, family or the hospital staff.

Visiting your baby in the NICU

4. Get involved with your baby’s routines
Every day the NICU staff organise your baby’s care, either to a schedule or to match when your baby naturally wakes up. If you can, plan to be there for these times so you can first learn and then gradually take over your baby’s care. For example, 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. He’ll learn to recognise you, and you’ll learn how to handle your baby in the ways he likes best. This is a great way to gain confidence in caring for him.

5. Have friends and family visit to support you
Some, but not all, NICUs allow friends and extended family to visit. If yours does, you can introduce your baby to her new family and social world. Visitors also bring some of the ‘real’ world into the hospital. They can have a meal with you, or sit by your baby while you get a meal or go for a walk. Most of all, they support you while you’re supporting your child.

It’s a good idea to have only one or two at a time though, because too many people can be overwhelming for you and your baby.

6. Keep a record of your baby’s development 
It’s likely that you’ll forget many things about this time in your baby’s life – even though it might seem unforgettable just now. You could take photos or videos, or keep a diary to help you remember. There are also smartphone apps that can help you keep track of weight gains and other aspects of development. Hospital staff can help you take your baby’s hand and foot impressions and prints.

1 May: Today was the first experience of breastfeeding for both Alex and me. He was introduced to the breast where he first just licked off a little milk and then sucked for a while.
4 May: Alex is still learning to coordinate suck and swallow. He is getting better with each passing day.
7 May: Alex fed from my breast for 10 minutes!
– Extract from the diary of a mother of a premmie

Relaxing and unwinding in and out of the NICU

7. Go out of the hospital for short breaks
Spending long hours in the NICU can be boring and mind-numbing – not to mention bottom-numbing. Get out of the hospital for a couple of breaks. Out in the fresh air you can get your body moving and some sun on your face.

8. Find somewhere quiet to rest
The noise in the NICU can be irritating, especially if you’re feeling stressed or have a headache. Hospitals often have a prayer room that’s calm and quiet, where you can sit quietly even if you’re not religious.

9. Write a journal
In a diary or journal, you can let out your grief, anger, despair and stress. You can also celebrate the joys of this time. Writing a journal can give you a chance to reflect on what’s happening, uncover positive and negative feelings that you might have buried inside yourself, observe life in the NICU, dream, chart joys and sorrows, complain, and keep track of your baby’s journey. It can also help lift your mood. The journal might be for your eyes only, or you might plan to share it with others at some later stage, including your baby when he’s older.

10. Take a book to read
Reading is relaxing for many people, and reading beside your baby will help pass the time. You can also read your book aloud to your baby. Reading aloud will help your baby recognise, get to know and expect your voice.

11. Do relaxation exercises
If you find the days in the hospital tiring and stressful, try exercises like closing your eyes, breathing deeply and slowly or relaxing your muscles. You can do these exercises while you’re sitting beside your baby. You can get smartphone apps that take you through these sorts of exercises if you find them hard to do by yourself.

12. Allow yourself time for treats
Try to find time to go out for dinner with your partner or friends, do something fun with your other children, or see a movie. Going out with your partner, on your own or with friends is good for everyone.

Looking after yourself while your baby is in the NICU

13. Go easy on yourself
It’s OK to say that you can’t make it to a friend’s birthday party this year if you don’t feel up to it. And don’t feel bad if you sleep in one morning rather than getting to the hospital early. If you look after yourself, you’ll be better able to look after your baby

14. Accept help from family and friends
Your priorities are likely to be visiting your premature baby and caring for your partner, yourself and other children. Practical help from friends and family can free you up for these priorities. If someone offers to mow the lawn, give you a lift to the hospital, do the shopping or walk the dog, say, ‘Yes, please!’

15. Share experiences with other parents in the NICU 
Other NICU parents can be a great source of support. Some parents form long-term friendships, or form support groups with each other.

16. Eat well
Nutritious food will boost your energy levels. If you’re expressing breastmilk you need three healthy meals and two or three healthy snacks a day. Everyone is different, so use your hunger, thirst and fullness to guide what you eat and drink.

17. Accept that there’ll be ups and downs
Knowing and accepting that there will be good days and bad days will help you to not feel so shocked and worried when bad days happen. 

I found the weeks my baby was in hospital a very lonely time. The friends who helped me most were those who offered specific things. They might say, ‘I’ll drive you into the hospital tomorrow and stay with you for the day’ or ‘I’ll meet you there and we’ll have a bite of lunch together’. The friends who said, ‘Let me know if I can do anything’ didn’t help so much. They were just as sincere, but it was just easier if they offered something specific.
– Mother of a 28-week premature baby

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Last updated or reviewed
12-05-2016

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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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