A neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) stay may never be on a birth plan. Whether it’s expected or unexpected, a NICU stay can be a frightening thing for parents. Know your baby is being cared for by the best, most experienced specialists available.
A neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) is a department in a hospital that provides care for newborns who require a higher level of care before going home. Many specialists are involved in the care of newborns, including neonatal doctors, surgeons and NICU nurses.
“Seeing your tiny baby hooked up to all monitors is not something for which any parent is emotionally prepared,” says Thomas Lancaster, MD, neonatologist with HCA Midwest Health. “Thinking about how long the stay will be, whether or not their baby will breathe on their own, how they are going to feed and especially what their baby’s diagnosis and prognosis are, can overwhelm parents.”
Dr. Lancaster offers tips for navigating a NICU stay.
You’re not alone.
“We have helped thousands of families through this journey,” Dr. Lancaster says. “Every day newborns are admitted to a NICU, often due to prematurity; we also admit full-term babies with birth defects or trouble breathing.”
The HCA Midwest Health NICU’s at Overland Park Regional Medical Center Centerpoint Medical Center, Research Medical Center and Menorah Medical Center also offer parent rooms in each NICU for families to connect and share their experiences with each other.
Know before you go.
For some a NICU stay could be a surprise. Ask your OB/GYN if the hospital where you are delivering your baby has a NICU.
“A NICU stay may not be top of mind, but it is important to plan ahead,” says Dr. Lancaster. “One question to ask your OB/GYN, or during your hospital tour is if they have a NICU and what the criteria is for a stay. This will help you make an informed decision about where you want to deliver.”
Meet the team.
“You will meet a lot of people from neonatologists, nurses, nurse practitioners, respiratory therapists, etc.” Dr. Lancaster says. “Keep a notebook to write down names and updates,” Dr. Lancaster recommends. Getting to know members of your infant’s care team is helpful.
You will also see lots of equipment. The team can explain each piece of medical equipment and tell you how it helps your infant recover.
Expect the unexpected.
“My number one recommendation is to trust your care team,” Dr. Lancaster says. “It’s normal for babies in the NICU to show improvement and then have a setback.”
Your care team will help map out a care plan and help you to understand what to expect. “Each patient is unique and no care plan is exactly the same,” Dr. Lancaster says.
The more time you spend with your baby, you will learn more about:
- What type of interaction your baby likes (stroking, singing, etc.)
- What time of day your baby is the most alert
- How long your baby can respond to you before getting tired
- When your baby is stressed and needs to rest
Babies in the NICU are on a feeding schedule. Parents may be able to breastfeed their babies or offer pumped breastmilk or formula in a bottle. Once your baby is stable, you will be able to have more interaction and you can bond with skin-to-skin contact.
Take care of yourself.
It can be exhausting to have a baby in the NICU. You may find yourself wanting to be at the hospital all day.
“Ask if the NICU has web cameras for parents to see their baby while away from their bedside,” Dr. Lancaster recommends. “Some HCA Midwest Health NICUs offer 24/7 webcams and you can check in on your baby. This is especially helpful if the parents have other children at home or for family out-of-town.”
It’s important that new parents pay attention to their own needs and those of their family. “When you take care of yourself, you'll be more rested and better able to take care of and get to know your baby,” Dr. Lancaster says.
HCA Midwest Health NICUs also offers support groups and the NICU at Overland Park Regional Medical Center has a Ronald McDonald House Charities of Kansas City Family Room, a place for families to rest and regroup while their child is getting medical treatment. Families are able to shower, stay overnight, have a home-cooked meal and use the laundry facilities inside the Family Room.
HCA Midwest Health hospitals deliver more than 10,000 babies a year – that’s more than any other hospital system in the Kansas City region. Our NICUs also care for more fragile infants than any other hospital in Kansas City. Learn more at HCAmidwest.com/delivers.