by Tisha Foley | Reprinted courtesy of

During pregnancy, you imagine giving birth to a healthy, full-term baby, but sometimes complications arise, and the baby is born prematurely. The regular hospital nursery can’t provide the in-depth care premature babies require, so little ones are admitted to the NICU (Neonatal Intensive Care Unit).

Babies in the NICU need constant care and monitoring, which can interrupt the bonding time parents have dreamed about during pregnancy. Dr. Kristin Voos, neonatologist at Children’s Mercy Hospital, explains, “It can be hard to find the parent role when your baby is in NICU.”

Fortunately, there are numerous ways you can bond with your newborn while he’s in the NICU.

Be informed.

Find out as much as possible about your baby’s medical condition. Sometimes her lungs just need a few more days to mature; other times, more serious complications are the reason for the NICU stay. By asking questions and researching her medical condition, you will become your baby’s biggest advocate.

Developing a good relationship with the staff is important, as you will be seeing them quite often. NICU is a busy place with a large staff of nurses, doctors, technicians and other medical personnel who will help you and your baby through this journey.

Visit with your baby as often as possible.

According to Regina Fraiya, RN, MSN, CPNP, Manager of Neonatal Services at Shawnee Mission Medical Center, “Parents are encouraged to visit often and stay as long as they desire. Parents play the most important role in their baby’s plan of care.” If mom is unable to visit baby right after birth, check to see what kind of technology is available. For example, Fraiya states that at Shawnee Mission Medical Center, “We have the technology to provide a video of her infant through our interactive TV system. It’s reassuring for her to feel connected to her baby while still recovering from delivery.

Raytown mom Melinda Simms says that while her daughter was in NICU, “We did 80 round trips in 40 days to Children's Mercy. We don’t regret any of those trips. I think babies use all five senses to bond. So they are smelling and hearing their parents if they are in the room.”

If you live far away from the hospital, visiting often may be difficult. Ask if there are any housing charities nearby and use them if you can. When Lenexa mom Beth Ashby gave birth more than six weeks early while visiting family in St. Louis, she and her family stayed at Ronald McDonald House Charities near the hospital. “The staff–mostly volunteers–were amazingly compassionate, sweet and caring,” Ashby says. “It was an incredible experience that I will forever be grateful for.”

If you have other children at home, find someone to stay with them so you can spend more time at the hospital. Family and friends will likely pitch in and watch the kids to save you the expense of hiring a sitter.

Help with your baby’s personal care.

Parents look forward to feeding, burping, diapering and bathing their newborn, but those routines that we take for granted can be compromised in the NICU. However, parents often can take steps to help personally care for their babies.

Gladstone mom Stacy Taylor’s son had a short stay in the NICU in May. She says, “We asked to change the diapers when we went in for feeding time. We also took turns tube feeding the baby when necessary.”

If the situation allows, breastfeeding will help strengthen the bond between a mom and baby. Mom and Dad also can take turns bottle feeding their newborn if possible.
In addition, parents can find simple ways to help with bathing their baby. Ask if you can use a warm cloth or cotton ball to cleanse your baby. The warmth and physical contact will soothe her.

If you are unsure of what to do, ask questions! A staff member will be glad to offer suggestions.

Have as much skin-to-skin contact as possible.

Elaine Riordan, LMSW, Overland Park Regional Medical Center NICU recommends intimate contact with baby. It is a very power tool in the bonding process. Parents are encouraged to hold everyday if baby is medically able to be held.  Kangaroo care is promoted and encouraged. In Kangaroo care, the baby is undressed down to his diaper and placed on a parent’s bare chest, providing skin-to-skin contact. “It’s therapeutic for baby and the baby’s parents” says Riordan.

Kangaroo care has been shown to improve the baby’s heart rate, maintain his body temperature and aid in weight gain. Mothers who practice kangaroo care have better milk supplies and less depression, too. Kangaroo care is not limited to mothers and dads are encouraged to participate, too.

If doctors believe that holding your baby would be too much, you can still hold her hand, touch her arm or simply place your hand on her back for warmth and comfort. When her daughter was in the NICU, Melinda Simms used as much skin-to-skin contact as possible, “even if it was just touching a hand or cheek.”

Focus on your baby.

It is normal to feel stressed and anxious when your baby is in the NICU, but try to set aside your worries and concentrate on your baby when you are there. Negative emotions such as stress will prevent you from bonding with your baby. Your little one needs you to be strong, so focus on positive thoughts while you are with him.

If you can hold him, tune out the beeping machines and concentrate on bonding with your baby while he’s in your arms. If you cannot hold him, sit close to his isolette and focus all your attention on him.

Your baby will spend much of his time sleeping, but when he is awake, make eye contact with him as much as possible. This will help with the bonding process and make your baby feel more comfortable.

Remember—bonding comes in many forms

Bonding with your baby is not limited to holding her and touching her, although those are certainly important aspects.

Ashby says that while her son Jonas was in the NICU, “He loved my singing from my iPod. Just being in the room, talking and visiting with family made a big difference.”
Reading to your baby, talking to him and decorating his space with stuffed animals or pictures are other ways you can bond.

You can read your baby’s “sign language” by observing him in the NICU. Some “signs” will be:

  • I need to rest.
  • I’m ready to bond with you.
  • I find this comforting.
  • I’ve had enough.