17 NICU Hacks for Parents

Anyone can improve their NICU experience with these tips

Every parent with a baby in the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) gets frustrated by the NICU. When you find yourself faced with these everyday annoyances, try these simple tips to make the experience better.


Loud Alarms?

Listening to music on phone

 Ezra Bailey/Getty Images

Can't stand visiting when you have to listen to the constant beeping of machines and ringing of alarms?

Make an awesome playlist on cell phone or other music device, and bring it with you when you visit. 

After you've talked with the nurses and doctors, and it's time to snuggle with your baby, put on the headphones and enter into your own peaceful/inspiring/rocking world.


Don't Like a Nurse?

NICU nurse

ER Productions Limited/Getty Images 

How do you handle a nurse you can't stand taking care of your baby?

Talk to the supervisor. While some personalities just don't click, other nurses may downright anger you or scare you, and you have every right to request that nurse not take care of your baby. 

Also, ask for primary nurses. If your baby is very premature and will be in the NICU for a while, let your nurses know that you'd like to request a select group of nurses who will be the main caregivers. Not every NICU does this, but it never hurts to ask.


Kangaroo Care Holding Woes

Moby wrap

Jesse Grant/Getty Images 

Do you find that your baby is slipping all over the place during kangaroo care, or do you feel afraid that you're going to drop your preemie, making it impossible for you to actually relax and enjoy your cuddle time?

Use a baby wrap (a Moby wrap or Zaky Zak), or a skin to skin shirt. Some nurses may not be familiar with using these items in the NICU, but don't let that stop you. Other NICUs allow them, even encourage them.


Baby Missing Out on Hearing Your Voice


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Are you feeling sad that your baby isn’t hearing your voice all the time, like she would have been if she wasn't born early? 

Here's one way to keep your sweetie hearing your voice even when you're not there. 

I recommend you borrow or purchase a cheap voice recorder (so you won't be devastated if it gets lost), and then record yourself talking to your baby, reading a book, singing lullabies—anything you feel like saying.

Your nurses can play this for your baby throughout the day, helping calm her when she's fussy or just playing it as background sound while she sleeps.


Can't Keep Track of All the Nurses and Doctors?

Notepad and pen

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This one's simple, yet so many parents forget to do it. 

Grab a cheap notepad and start writing down the names of everyone you meet in the NICU. Or, use the notes function on your mobile phone to make a list.

These are also a great places to write down those questions you mean to ask, but always forget to ask because your NICU/pumping/stressed-out brain can't ever remember what it was you were going to ask. 


NICU Anxiety & Stress


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When visiting the NICU causes you huge stress, make a practice of doing a simple meditation or prayer every time you are there.

Something that calms you, even just a little bit, will help bring your stress level down and give you something small to look forward to.

(There are even a few NICU specific meditations to try if you don't have any idea how you might meditate in the NICU.)


No Professional Baby Photos?

Medical photographer

Sandsun/Getty Images 

So many parents dream of the adorable newborn photos they would take, and then feel utterly disappointed that they don't get to do that. 

But go ahead—ask your NICU if you can schedule a professional photographer to come to the NICU—many NICU's will allow it, as long as the baby is stable enough. 

A great resource is Tiny Footprints, a non-profit organization which has a team of volunteer photographers across the country who specialize in free photography for NICU families. 


Hate Pumping?


Asawin_Klabma/Getty Images

Pumping for your baby in the NICU is a drag, right? While it's the most wonderful labor of love, providing the best medicine for your preemie, it's still annoying as heck. Every three hours, up in the night, being hooked up to a machine is no fun. 

How to make it fun? First, be sure to use a hands-free bra. You'll be so SO glad you did. (You can make one or buy one or use a hands-free system). 

Next, think about something fun that you like to do, an indulgence—a favorite TV show on Netflix, or a copy of that one magazine you love but never take time to read—and save these treats just for pumping time

Want to binge-watch "Mad Men"? Want to read the latest National Enquirer? Allow yourself this indulgence during pumping.


Missing Your Baby

Baby in blanket

Camille Tokerud/Getty Images 

I wish there was a great hack for this one—but it's just really hard to be separated. There's no getting around it. 

But ask your nurses for a blanket that smells like your baby—the blanket he's been swaddled in all night, for example. 

Having that blanket to cuddle with and smell when you're home and missing your baby is a small but wonderful thing. It truly helps with your bonding. 

Don't believe me? Here's an article explaining research that shows just how important that newborn smell is to new moms.


Can’t Hold Your Baby?

Baby in NICU

arabianEye/Getty Images

Nothing's worse than showing up to the NICU, expecting that you'll be holding your baby, only to find that you can't hold your baby for some reason or another. It's the worst. 

The next time this happens, don't panic. Know that your presence there with your baby is incredibly important (see the above hack about "Missing your Baby").

Use the time instead to do one of the following:

If you can't stand it - if it's too upsetting to just sit there and not hold - give yourself some fresh air and go for a walk. And remember your stress hack - meditate or pray.


Hate the Hospital Baby Outfits?

NICU - neonatal intensive care unit, nurse exam

Warren Diggles Photography/Getty Images 

Ask if you can bring in your own clothes for your baby. Most hospitals allow it. 

Check out It’s a Preemie Thing or Itty Bitty Baby if you can't find preemie clothes at a store nearby. They're not only the right size, but they're designed with the NICU in mind.


Feeling Alone?

Online support group

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Having a preemie in the NICU is stressful, and most other "normal" new moms won't be able to relate to your experience. It leaves many NICU parents feeling incredibly alone.

You don't have to stay all alone!

Ask if your NICU has a support group and if so—give it a try!

If not, check out some wonderful online communities such as Baby Center (Preemie Parenting) or the bump Preemies Forum or Inspire Preemie Support Group. You'll find other NICU moms and dads who share their stories and encourage each other.  


Missing the Milestone Photos?

Cute twelve months stickers with animals for babies

jsabirova/Getty Images

Want to do those cute “One month,” “Two Month” photos everyone else is doing, but your preemie is too small for the outfits?

Worry not—Use month-to-month iron-on patches. You can iron them on to preemie size onesies if your baby can wear them, or on a blanket to drape over your baby for the photo. 

Is an iron-on too much work? You can also find month-to-month stickers, which you can place over your little one or even attach to the isolette/crib (with the nurse's help).


Family Members Can't Visit?

Grandmother and granddaughters video chatting with digital tablet on sofa

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If your loved ones can't visit—whether it's because they're too young, or sick, or just because your NICU won't allow it—ask if you can use Skype or Face Time. Most NICUs are getting used to the technology, and are happy to allow you to use the live-streaming in order to show off your adorable baby to your family and friends. Just not too much—please keep in mind your baby is still delicate and needs quiet and low stimulation most of the time. 


Want to Do the Next Bath or Bottle Feeding?

Premature baby girl in incubator with mother

Arrow/Getty Images 

Have you been frustrated by a nurse who does a bath for your baby, or a bottle feeding, when you had been hoping to do that yourself? 

A simple solution that works most of the time is to call your nurse. Communication between parents and nurses can't be overstated—it's important if you have something you want to do. Otherwise, your nurses won't know what you want. So call them! 

Also, think about leaving a nice note at the baby's bedside, maybe "Mom Wants to do the Next Bath" or "Dad will be here to do the 11 am feeding—please wait for him." 


Hands Dry?

Use hand lotion

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Are your hands cracked and dry thanks to all of the hand washing and sanitizing that the NICU requires? 

Be prepared—pack a tube of your favorite lotion in your purse or pumping bag. Be sure it's not a super-fragrant lotion, because the babies' noses are sensitive. But do be sure it's one you love, something that makes you happy. 


Trouble Breastfeeding?

Mother breastfeeding newborn baby

 Andersen Ross/Getty Images

If you are hoping to breastfeed your baby, you may find that preemies (any babies, in fact) who have spent time in the NICU may have difficulty breastfeeding.

If this is the case for you, PLEASE get the help of a lactation consultant. You deserve it. If your NICU doesn't provide one, ask where you can find one in the community who can help. A qualified lactation consultant can help with pumping and milk supply as well as getting babies to latch and nurse effectively. 

There you go—don't be afraid to try all of these if they'll help make your preemie journey a little bit smoother and pleasant. Hang in there preemie parents!

By Trish Ringley, RN
Trish Ringley, RN, has been a NICU nurse since 1997 and owns Every Tiny Thing, an online store serving preemies and NICU families.