How to Pass the Time in the NICU

Premature baby boy (0-3 months) in incubator, holding mother's thumb
Anthony Saffery / Getty Images

When you first arrive in the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU), it can be a scary, overwhelming place. In the beginning, you'll likely be so busy meeting the staff, talking to the nurses and doctors, learning about the equipment and your child's condition, and just looking at your baby that the time may go by pretty quickly. However, if your baby has to stay in the NICU for weeks or months, the days of sitting and watching can begin to get longer and longer.

If you spend most of the day in the NICU, you may find you have a lot of time on your hands once you become adjusted and settle into a daily routine.

Parents can usually visit the NICU anytime day or night, and many try to be there as often as possible. If you have many days ahead to spend in NICU until you can bring your baby home, here are ideas of fruitful ways to pass the time.

Spend Time With Your Baby

Obviously, you'll want to spend as much quality time with your child as possible. So, when you're able to, talk to your little one and touch them gently. In the beginning, you may not be able to do too much physical touch. Your access to your baby will depend on how early your baby was born and their condition. But, as your child grows, you'll most likely be able to have more and more physical contact. Aim for the following interactions with your baby:

  • Ask when you'll be able to hold your child and provide kangaroo care (skin-to-skin contact). Holding your baby and engaging in skin-to-skin contact is good for both your and your baby's well-being.
  • If you're planning to breastfeed, ask how long it will be until you can begin trying. (Be sure to pump if you can't breastfeed yet to build and maintain your supply—more on this below.) As the days and weeks go on and your baby gets closer to going home, you'll be able to get more involved in their care.
  • Learn how to perform any hands-on care that you're allowed to do, then do it as often as you can. You may start out by taking your child's temperature and changing their diaper. When your baby starts eating, learn how to help.
  • Pay attention to your baby and start learning to read their communication and behavioral signals. Even preemies give clues to their comfort level and needs. By watching and participating in your baby's daily care, you'll begin to recognize the subtle signs that say “I'm ready to interact,” "I'm hungry," or “I'm getting tired and need a break.”

Other Ways to Pass the Time

As preemies need periods of uninterrupted sleep to grow and develop, expect that there will be significant chunks of time when you can't be with your baby. Additionally, there may be times that hospital staff need to limit the number of people in the NICU area.

Since a premature baby's brain is not as mature as a full-term child's, preemies are more sensitive to noise, light, and activity.

Preemies can quickly become overwhelmed by too much stimulation. This means there's definitely going to be a lot of time when you're not directly interacting with your child. You'll probably spend some of that time sitting and looking at your baby, but there are other things you can do to pass the time while your preemie is resting quietly.

Talk to the Nurses

Ask the nurses about your child's care and any changes in their condition. Find out if you're any closer to starting feedings and/or how the last feeding went. Talk about any procedures that were recently done, and check if any new procedures are scheduled.

Have the nurses explain anything that you don't understand, especially if you just spoke to the doctors. The nurses can keep you informed on all aspects of your child's care, progress, medications, and feeding schedule. They are your main source of information, so spend time talking to them and asking any questions you might have.

Talk to the Doctors

You may be able to catch the neonatologist or one of the residents on the unit, but you might have to make an appointment to see the doctor or speak to them on the phone. When you talk to the neonatal team, get an update on your child's condition. Ask about the treatment plan and find out if there have been any changes in the plan. Try to write down questions as you think of them so that when you speak to the doctor, you'll be ready and you won't forget what you wanted to ask about.

Get to Know Other NICU Staff

When you spend weeks or months in the same place, the staff can become like a second family. They can also be a great source of information and support. So, take some time and say hello or have a conversation with the unit secretary, the respiratory therapist, and the housekeeper. Not only is it nice to put names to faces, but you'll also know who to ask when you need something or have a question.

Pump for Your Baby

While your child is sleeping, find a private place to pump (sometimes there are dedicated pumping rooms) and express your breast milk. If your baby isn't taking formula or breast milk yet, you can label and freeze your milk for when your child is ready. You can also use this time to talk to the hospital's lactation consultant. The lactation consultant can give you tips and information about pumping, your breast milk supply, and storing breast milk for your preemie.

Decorate Your Child's Space

You can usually hang some pictures of you, your partner, your other children, or other special people in your life on the incubator or the crib. Sometimes, small stuffed animals can be placed inside plastic bags and put in the corner of the Isolette or crib. You may even be able to bring in a recording of your voice or some soft music. Just ask the staff what you're allowed to bring in before you begin decorating. Each NICU unit may have different guidelines.

Use a Computer, Phone, or Tablet

Ask if you can use an electronic device in the NICU and find out if WiFi is available. If devices are allowed, they can keep you occupied for hours. You can work, read, play online games, and stay in touch with family and friends. You may want to do some online research into your child's condition and care to get a better understanding of what's going on and to prepare for what you'll need when you take your child home. 

If you're not allowed to use a device while you're in the unit, you can still bring one. There's likely a place you can go to use it, so just ask.

Catch Up on Your Reading

Bring a book. Escaping into a novel is an excellent way to pass the time in the NICU. Uplifting or inspirational quotes and books may make good choices, but really anything that you find engrossing should do the trick. You may also want to read to learn more about prematurity or to read stories about other families with premature infants.

Join a Parent Support Group

The hospital social worker or clinical nurse specialist may run a support group for the parents and families of the babies in the NICU. Ask the nurses if one is offered in your hospital. It may help to share experiences with other parents who are in similar situations and give you a better understanding of what it's like to have a child in the NICU.

Get Some Fresh Air

Taking a break from the NICU and getting a change of scenery is good for you. If you're worried about leaving, take the opportunity to get away during the change of shift or procedures when you're asked to leave the room anyway. Find a place to grab a bite to eat or get some fresh air. Pack snacks and take a walk. Or get your blood pumping by going for a quick run. If friends or family want to see you, meet up with them in the hospital cafeteria—or at a nearby restaurant—for lunch or dinner.

Additionally, when you need sleep, a few hours off, or simply a change of pace, give yourself permission to take it. Trust that the nurses and other staff will be there to provide the best possible care for your baby and that's it's not necessary for you to be there at all times.

Document Your Child's Journey

Keep a camera, journal, or a baby book with you. Take pictures and write a little entry in the journal when you visit. You can keep track of your child's weight and each milestone they reach during their NICU stay. Celebrating the positive, happy moments is important, and you'll want to remember them. You can also write notes or letters to your child. Ask their primary nurse to write a note, too. One day when your child is older, you'll be able to show them the memories that you captured.

A Word From Verywell

The time your child spends in NICU can be very stressful and full of ups and downs. Participating in your child's care as much as possible while keeping busy and distracted can help you pass the time and get you through this challenging experience. The NICU staff, family and friends, religious or spiritual representatives, and others who have been in your situation can be a great source of support and encouragement, so ask for support when you need it and let people help you.

Ultimately, how you cope and what you need is unique to you. Seek the things that you find comforting, restorative, and uplifting. And, most of all, don't forget to take the time to take care of yourself. Aim to eat right and get the rest you need because your child needs you to be healthy and ready to take care of them full-time once you get to take them home.

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