“No parent ever expects or plans to end up in the NICU,” says Michelle Ferrant, MSN, RNC-NIC, CBC, DNP(C).
Michelle is a staff nurse, Clinical Level IV at Penn’s intensive care nursery (ICN), and the staff chair on the ICN Family Advisory Council.
One of the hardest things parents may struggle with is feeling that they can’t form a close relationship with their newborn, especially when they can’t hold him.
But there are ways to form that sense of attachment, Michelle says. Here are three ways to bond with your baby in the NICU.
Acknowledge your emotions
Having a child in the NICU is definitely an emotional experience.
“One of the phrases you’ll hear us use is that it’s a roller coaster. There really is no better way to describe it. There are good days, and there are bad days,” she says.
The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) says that parents may feel a number of intense—and perfectly normal—emotions when their baby is in the NICU:
Michelle says that disappointment is another common emotion that parents of NICU babies express.
She tells parents that, “While this wasn’t your plan, this is now the baby’s plan. And we’re all in this together to make this as positive of an experience as it can be, so that you have some things to look back on and feel good about.”
Remember that these emotions are completely normal. It’s important for you to acknowledge how you are feeling—and seek help if necessary—so that you can be there for your child during this difficult time.
Talk to your baby
Even though they are not able to fully understand what you’re saying, babies can recognize familiar voices, says the National Center for Infants, Toddlers, and Families.
“Your baby knows who you are. He knows your voice,” Michelle says. She recommends talking or reading to your baby.
In fact, speaking in front of your child is part of how he develops language skills of his own.
Preemies who are exposed to normal adult language during their time in the NICU have better developed language skills by the age of three, according to a February 2014 study in Pediatrics.
Get involved in your baby’s care
If your child is stable enough, kangaroo care often comes first. “Also known as skin-to-skin care, the baby is undressed to just a diaper and tucks into mom’s chest and goes right on her skin,” explains Michelle.
“They can hang out there together for up to four hours as long as the baby is maintaining their temperature and heart rate,” she adds. “Babies really do well with that, and moms and dads like it as well.”
Even if you can’t hold your baby, which is rare, there are still ways for you to establish a care routine just like any other parent of a newborn, the AAP says.
Michelle adds that, “Parents are truly partners in care. While we might be providing all of the medical care, they are the parent, and they are also important.”
When you’re ready to get involved, Michelle explains, “We’ll stand at the bedside while you change the diaper—just to help manage the baby, and all of the cords and tubes—to make it a little more comfortable.”
“Then, as the baby progresses, the parents can become more involved by taking the baby’s temperature,” she adds. “As the baby starts taking food orally, mom can breastfeed or dad can offer the baby bottles.”
There really are many ways that parents can be partners in their baby’s care. “There is so much that they are providing their baby that we can’t.”
“We highly encourage parents to be an active partner in their baby’s care,” Michelle says. “Many times, when the babies are very little and sick, parents are too nervous or scared. Check in with the nurse to see how your baby is doing and how you can help.”