NICU stands for neonatal intensive care unit. It is a special unit for babies born preterm, or very early. Most babies born very early will need special care after birth.
Your delivery may have taken place in a hospital that has a NICU. If not, you and your baby may have been moved to a hospital with a NICU to receive special care.
Very Early Babies Look Different
When babies are born early, they have not yet finished growing. So, they will not look like a baby that was carried a full 9 months.
A preterm infant will be smaller and will weigh less than a full-term infant.
The baby may have thin, smooth, shiny skin that you can see through.
The skin may look red because you can see blood in the vessels underneath.
Other things you may notice:
Body hair (lanugo)
Less body fat
Floppy muscles and less movement
What to Expect in the NICU
Your baby will be put in an enclosed, see-through plastic crib called an incubator. This special crib will:
Keep your baby warm. Your baby won’t need to be wrapped in blankets.
Lessen the risk of an infection
Control the moisture in the air to keep your baby from losing water.
Your baby will wear a cap so the head will stay warm.
There will likely be tubes and wires attached to the baby. This can seem scary to new parents. They are not hurting the baby.
Some tubes and wires are connected to monitors. They check the baby's breathing, heart rate, blood pressure, and temperature at all times.
A tube through your baby's nose carries food into the stomach.
Other tubes bring fluids and medicines to your baby.
Your baby may need to wear tubes that bring extra oxygen.
Your baby may need to be on a breathing machine (respirator).
Bonding with Your Baby in the NICU
It is normal for parents to feel nervous or scared to have a baby in the NICU. You can lessen these feelings by:
Getting to know the team that cares for your baby
Learning about all of the equipment
Even though your baby is inside a special crib, it is still important for you to touch your baby. Talk with the nurses about touching and talking to your baby.
At first, you may only be able to stroke your baby’s skin through the openings of the incubator.
As your baby grows and improves, you will be able to hold him and help with bathing him.
You can also talk and sing to your baby.
Cuddling with your baby against your skin, called “kangaroo care,” will also help you bond. It won’t be long before you see things you would have seen had the baby been born full-term -- like your baby’s smile, and your baby grasping your fingers.
Take Care of Yourself
After giving birth, your body will need some time to rest and recover. Your feelings may also hit highs and lows. You may feel the joy of being a new mom one moment, but anger, fear, guilt, and sadness the next.
Having a baby in the NICU is stressful enough. But these ups and downs can also be caused by hormone changes after childbirth.
In some women, the changes may lead to feeling sad and depressed. If you are having a hard time with your emotions, ask for the social worker in the NICU. Or, talk to your doctor. It is okay to ask for help.
By taking care of yourself, you are taking care of your baby too. Your baby needs your love and touch to grow and improve.
Neil K. Kaneshiro, MD, MHA, Clinical Assistant Professor of Pediatrics, University of Washington School of Medicine. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Medical Director, A.D.A.M. Health Solutions, Ebix, Inc.