Having an infant who requires extra medical care can elicit a host of emotions: Grief, worry and anticipation are common during a neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) stay. Parents often ask: “How can we bond with our baby?” and “Is breastfeeding possible?”
Although an NICU stay may be different from other situations, rest assured you will be able to bond with your baby fully and breastfeed as well.
As much as you can, plan to be in the NICU. The more you are with your baby, the more you are able to participate in your child’s care. Parents may need to take turns being in the NICU, because staying at your child’s bedside means that you can communicate with the staff about your baby’s progress. Your presence also gives you the most opportunity to keep your baby skin-to-skin.
The doctors, nurses, aids and lactation consultants in the NICU can show you how they are caring for your baby, which will help you gain confidence as you and your baby transition home. Bear in mind that you may be able to go home before your baby. Spending time with your baby is the easiest way to become an expert in your child’s care. Your baby will find your voice and smell soothing because of what your child experiences in the womb. Active participation in your child’s care reminds you of the special bond between mother and baby, even though your baby may require some special attention from the medical staff.
Skin-to-skin contact is a miracle for infants. Research tells us that babies who are held bare-chest-to-bare-chest regulate their breathing, heart rate and temperature more easily, grow faster and experience less pain than babies who are not.
Let the staff members know that you want to spend as much time skin-to-skin as possible, and encourage them to show you how to hold your newborn. If wires or IVs are making you nervous, let your nurses know. Medical staff in the NICU are great at helping you gain confidence with your baby’s care. Your baby will feel most comfortable being on her parents’ chest. Skin-to-skin is an easy way for both you and your partner to bond with your baby.
Breastmilk is like medicine to babies who are born prematurely or require extra medical care. Rates of dangerous gut infections are much lower when babies are fed mother’s milk, so your NICU staff will encourage you to pump your breastmilk as much as possible. Taking videos of your baby to watch while you are pumping will help activate the hormones needed to make milk. Pumping while interacting with your baby can help your milk supply. Ask if your hospital has an International Board Certified Lactation Consultant (IBCLC) whom you can work with to make a plan of care. In the NICU, ever drop of breastmilk is precious.
Soon you will bring home and care for your baby without the NICU surroundings. During your baby’s time in the NICU, remember to always ask for guidance from the medical staff. They are happy to help facilitate bonding between parents and their baby because this connection will lead to better health outcomes for your newborn.
For more on caring for your newborn and parenting with confidence, visit Lamaze.org. and download the Lamaze mobile Pregnancy to Parenting app that includes a breastfeeding and diaper tracker along with other tools and online classes for new moms.
Ashley Benz, MA, CD(DONA), LCCE, IBCLC, is a DONA Certified Birth Doula, a Certified Lactation Counselor and a Lamaze Certified Childbirth Educator. She currently serves as the co-president of Birth Care Network and is the Parent Education Chair for the Education Council of Lamaze International.