There are many ways to bond with your baby – even during his or her NICU stay.
Bonding is important for baby development. It helps babies feel loved, safe and secure. But bonding can take time and baby in the neonatal intensive care unit is a family crisis. Parents are rarely prepared for the challenges of the NICU environment, such as the fragile condition of the infant, the high level of technology, and frequent crises. No matter your vision, the reality of admission to the NICU with a medically fragile infant causes feelings of reactions as fear, anger, confusion, and loss.
You may first feel as if you have no idea how to handle the situation, but with time, new preemie parents grow confident in their understanding of what is happening and what to expect. So even if you're feeling lost now, give these 12 suggestions below a try. They'll get you off to a good start.
Suggestions for Bonding with Your Newborn in the NICU
1. Do Your Research, But Don't Overwhelm Yourself
When you’re about to go online to look up preemie-related questions, take a moment to ask yourself: "Do I really need this information right now?" Stumbling across preemie stories with negative outcomes may make you anxious. If you’re going to stress and fret all night long after reading about worst-case scenarios, it's just not worth it.
Instead, talk to your baby's doctors and nurses and consult with other NICU parents you meet. If you must go online to do research because you feel you’re just not getting the answers you need, remember that the scary stuff and the negativity is not your baby and it’s not guaranteed for every baby. Stay focused on the positives.
2. TALK TO BABY
A quiet soft voice will offer a sense of comfort. Babies are familiar with your voice from inside the womb so hearing it now might be able to help stabilize him or her. Bonding will look different for each individual family due to each baby’s unique circumstances. Certain factors – such as the mom’s health, the baby’s medical issues, diagnoses, and gestation at birth – will affect the ways in which families can bond.
For example, a baby born at 25 weeks cannot be held right away due to his/her medical instability, (IVH and infection precautions). However, a baby born at 34 weeks may be held, depending on his or her medical condition. Some NICU babies are able to tolerate touch very well, while others require minimal stimulation due to respiratory support, pre/post op care, hemodynamic instability, etc.
If you were unable to hold your baby within the first 24 hours or the first several weeks of life, please know that your opportunity to bond with your baby was not completely lost. In fact, it is imperative! Initial bonding might be a bit different than you anticipated but your presence and calm energy are a big piece of baby's healing and growth.
3. VISIT WHEN YOU CAN
Your presence alone can have a long-term positive impact on your baby’s development and give you confidence as a parent too. Spending time with your baby in the NICU is such an important part of bonding. Parents or parent figures are constant. Although your situation seems so foreign, getting involved and getting into the routine provides structured normalcy.
Ask questions, review the plan of care, and empower yourself with an understanding of the NICU day-to-day routine. The more we see you and get to know you the better. It is helpful when you know as much about your baby as we do!
NICU Parent Perspectives. Innovators. Entrepreneurs.
4. ASK FOR NURSES YOU LIKE
Probably the most unpopular opinion. Some personalities jive better than others. If you have a nurse or two you really bond with, ask if they are able to primary your baby. Some hospitals do this, while others do not due to staffing needs. But it never hurts to ask!
This is your time too. Parents can start to change the baby's diaper, help in taking temperature, and participate in feeding (if appropriate) the baby. Whether it be a bottle or breastfeeding understanding the process can truly empower you to feel a part of the process. Parents are the baby’s best health advocates! Get to know the nurses. Get to know the MDs, RTs, OTs, and medical team members. Together we can help lead you throughout the NICU Journey.
For our especially tiny micro preemie or medically fragile newborns offering your baby, a finger with a gentle grasp can be a beautiful and precious way to bond with baby. You can also offer a "hand hug" and provide a positive soft touch while talking to baby.
6. SKIN TO SKIN: KANGAROO CARE
After baby is stable and the medical team has confidence in baby's health status parents can start the skin-to-skin process. The sound of mom's heartbeat is a familiar sound to them & it has been medically proven that skin-to-skin helps a baby thrive in the NICU. Also, a great aid for mothers' breastmilk production & daddy’s bonding. Daddy this is your time too! Babies know your heartbeat, scent, voices, tones etc. Skin to skin is the best way to bond with your new little one.
7. PERSONALIZE YOUR SPACE
You can also decorate the baby’s area. Decorating your baby’s Isolette with a milestone, holiday, or special moment is another great way to create that special bond. Bring "home" to the Hospital. Bring pieces of your family’s life to place in your infant’s isolette or crib in the form of family photos, a special blanket, artwork from siblings, and more. (Some NICUs are more strict on policies so just ask what they allow). Etsy has some fun "Milestone Cards," and NICU decor to offer. Many families find that making a sign with your baby’s name, decorating with family pictures, or adding other personal touches can feel like you are giving your baby a piece of home while you are away.
8. LETTERS TO BABY
Write it out. Writing can be therapeutic and tangible. Noting big milestones, tracking the journey, and processing your NICU stay can really empower you during the process. This is something you & your baby can look back on & can also give you an outlet to express how you’re feeling at that moment.
Some families find that documenting their baby’s experience in the NICU by journaling or scrapbooking (either digitally or in physical form) can be helpful. Taking photos and journaling experiences may feel very tender and sometimes painful. I encourage you to document what you can and when you feel able. In moments when you’re not feeling up to it, ask someone else to help you do this by taking pictures or writing memories.
Thank goodness for technology! Some NICUs have a “NIC-VIEW” camera (a little camera that can be placed above your baby’s bed) that parents can view live online. This is a great opportunity for parents that can’t always be at their baby's bedside. (Not all NICUs have this technology but it doesn't hurt to ask. Each NICU holds a different platform and policy for viewing.
10. INFANT MASSAGE
Take a class through a certified infant massage instructor and utilize techniques with your MEDICALLY STABLE baby. Benefits include reduced levels of cortisol (stress hormone), increased muscle tone, and supported parent-infant interactions, among others. Speak with your baby’s doctor and bedside nurse before using this technique with your medically fragile infant.
11. LEAVE YOUR SCENT
Check with NICU staff to learn what cloth items are appropriate to place in the baby’s space. Sleep with that item or wear it all day tucked under your clothing, then place in your baby’s space. Swapping scents back and forth from mother and father to baby are well documented evidence-based practiced outcomes! Not only will this help your baby, but it is also a source of comfort for you! You can find "Lovies" on Amazon or Etsy if your NICU does not offer them.
12. LEAN ON LOVED ONES AROUND YOU
This can feel like the most overwhelming time in your life. You may experience a variety of emotions. Overwhelmed, frustrated, and even loneliness. This is a great time to use people around you who want to help. Whether it is a family member or distant friend, lean into their help. From delivered dinners, help with laundry, childcare, transportation, amazon gift cards, etc. Let these people in your life help you. This can truly help you, which will ultimately help you and your beautiful baby.
13. TAKE CARE OF YOU & YOUR RELATIONSHIPS
This time can be one of the most overwhelming times of your life. If you feel overwhelmed and insecure, you’re not alone or failing at this. If you’re feeling sad or confused, that’s okay. These are all such normal responses. It's ok to take some time away and revive yourself.
Take a shower, go on a date night, sleep, take a walk, girl or boy night, and refocus your mindset.
One of the most important components of this time frame is parental involvement, both in gains for the baby and in fostering an appropriate parent/baby relationship that will allow for an easy transition to home. All care should be family-centered, and every effort should be made to involve parents in all aspects of caring for the baby. It is during this stage that we prepare both baby and parents for discharge from the small baby unit. Our ultimate goal is to empower the family to become the best caregivers for their infant, thereby improving the outcomes of the baby and the satisfaction of the family. You got this!
Listen to this holy-grail list of episodes from all aspects of the NICU! These Cellfie Show episodes will give you insight into your most pressing NICU-related questions as well as a fresh perspective from the point of view of NICU providers, entrepreneurs, and parents. No matter your experience with the NICU so far, I hope you take away something new in these episodes that you can apply to your unique journey!
*If you have any questions about what is most appropriate for your baby,
consult with your baby’s medical team.
NICU Essential Resources
March of Dimes! Resources for parents & providers
Tori Meskin BSN RNC-NIC. Nurse. Blogger. Podcaster. Tori has been a clinician since 2012, works in acute care/inpatient NICU & Pediatric settings in southern California. She is a blogger, podcaster, NICU & Pediatric Critical Care RN, Sponsored Capella University MSN student, a Barco Uniforms Ambassador & Brave beginnings Ambassador. She has obtained her National NICU Nurse Certification (RNC-NIC) & has previously worked as a travel nurse, pursuing bedside experiences in several NICU settings. Follow her as she shares her NICU journey married life & juggles work, school, content creation, & brings you top notch Tips & Tricks along the way. Find her at www.tipsfromtori.com or firstname.lastname@example.org