Being part of your baby's health-care team

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How parents can effectively participate in the care of a baby in the NICU. In most cases, parents can do more than they imagine.

Key points

  • How involved parents can be in the care of their baby will depend on the condition of their baby as well as the amount of time they are able to spend in the NICU.
  • Some ways parents can help care for their child include through kangaroo care (skin-to-skin contact) and breastfeeding.

How much parents can participate in the care of their baby and interact withthem depends on several things, not the least of which is the condition of the baby. In most cases, parents can do more than they imagine.

Being a part of your baby's care

Mom looking up and cuddling her baby

There may be limits on how involved parents can get with their baby’s care because there will probably be constraints on how much time they can spend in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU). Additionally, especially at the beginning of a family’s experience at the NICU, parents may feel restricted about how much they can do because they don’t know what they can do. This is understandable; the environment of the NICU is unique and most people have never experienced anything like it. At first, parents also look at their tiny baby and imagine them to be much too fragile to be taken care of by anyone but an expert.

A little time getting used to the realities of the NICU and their baby, and a little knowledge, generally lets parents ease into a more active role. As parents become more comfortable with the NICU, they should ask specifically what they can do to help. Parents doing what they can do for their baby is beneficial in several respects. First, it is beneficial to the child. Participating in a baby’s care, even in the smallest ways, encourages bonding between parent and child, and is beneficial to the baby’s health. Second, participation will do wonders to combat a sense of helplessness that parents often feel, especially at the beginning, when confronted with a baby needing care at the hospital.

At the same time, parents should not feel badly that they cannot participate in their baby’s care, or even visit the NICU, as much as they would like. Do as much as you can and don’t feel guilty about not being able to do more. The reality is that there is still a household to be run, income to be earned, other children to take care of, and so on. Juggling all of these responsibilities and making time to be at the NICU to participate in a baby’s care is not easy, and cannot be accomplished to perfect satisfaction.

Kangaroo care

Kangaroo care is skin-to-skin touch between a parent and baby. It sounds basic, and it is; however, kangaroo care has been shown to encourage healing, reduce pain, and increase bonding between parent and baby. Since much of this type of care happens during breastfeeding, kangaroo care is more often associated with the mother. However, the father can participate as well.


Although feeding directly from the mother’s breast is not always possible in the NICU, mothers will be encouraged to pump milk and, if possible, bottle feed the baby with breast milk. Like kangaroo care, this encourages bonding, healing, and pain relief in addition to all the excellent nutritional benefits that breast milk provides. Fathers are encouraged to participate in feeding as well as mothers.

Communicating with friends and family

Often, and especially at the beginning of a stay at the NICU, the role of communicator falls to the father. Depending on the situation, it may even be possible that the mother is at another hospital for a time recovering from labour and delivery. Fathers end up being the link between the doctors, the mother, the rest of the family, and other friends. Staff at the NICU will do their best to speak in plain language; even so, the newness and shock of the situation can make it difficult for fathers to communicate effectively. Get a pad of paper and write things down. Appoint someone, a friend or family member, to be the communicator to the rest for the family. This will reduce the number of people a father has to relay information to and free up time for other things.

All parents are encouraged to learn as much as they can about theirbaby’s condition and about the NICU in general. The more parents know about the situation, the better the questions they can ask; the more they can participate, the better communications will be between all concerned.

Learning about paediatric care is not easy. If you are not offered, ask staff to direct you to sources of information that will be understandable. Learn as much as you can and do not feel guilty about the limits of your understanding. It took years of concentrated effort for staff members at the NICU to become experts in the care of sick and/or premature babies. No parent could be expected to learn so much in a short period of time, especially when there are many other practical and emotional concerns that need immediate attention.

Visits to the NICU

Although there are usually no limits on parents visiting or calling the NICU, this is not the case for extended family members and friends. These individuals should be told this fact in order to avoid unexpected visits during awkward times and to avoid disappointments when they are not admitted to the NICU. Parents should also try to get a sense of whether and how much they want others to visit. If parents want privacy, they should tell their friends and family directly.

Parents often want to bring their other children into the NICU to visit their new sibling. This is a good idea; it often helps children understand why their parents are suddenly not around so much. Siblings often go through changes when a new, full-term baby arrives at home. This experience can be amplified by a baby in the hospital. If siblings visit the NICU, age-appropriate information should be given to them so they know what to expect and how to behave. Ask the staff at the NICU for help determine when is a good time for children to visit and what to tell them, given their ages, before they arrive. It should be noted that some hospitals may not allow children below a certain age to visit the NICU.

Privacy and other parents

The NICU is a temporary home to several babies and their visiting parents. Often, parents are comforted by meeting other parents, swapping stories, and sharing experiences. However, every parent has a right to privacy. These rights must be respected. Although this is not usually a problem, the staff at the NICU will inform parents about the specific rules of the NICU that are in place to protect privacy.

Last updated: October 31st 2009