The Essential Checklist for Bringing Your Preemie Home

Newborn baby sleeping in incubator
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Without a doubt, the most asked question from preemie parents in every NICU, every day, is "When will my baby come home?" It's a major milestone that every parent longs for, dreams of, and obsesses over, and with good reason.

But when the big day finally comes, when weeks or months of waiting finally come to an end and it's time to take their sweet bundle of joy home, many parents feel utterly freaked out. Even though you can't stand to leave your baby and you can't wait to bring them home, it's easy to feel unprepared when the day comes.

The NICU is an overwhelming place. Parents are in a very unnatural role, sitting on the sidelines as nurses and doctors care for their babies. Knowing that you will be completely responsible for your baby at home can be frightening.

If you make the most of your time in the NICU, your transition to life together at home can be less scary. You'll need to be prepared in three ways: getting your home ready, getting yourself ready, and getting your support team ready.

Get Your Home Ready for Your Preemie

Preparing for your preemie to come home is very much like getting ready for any baby to come home, although there are a few important considerations to keep in mind. These items will help keep your preemie safe and you comfortable.

Basics

These are the items that every baby should have at home. Your preemie is no different. Just be sure they're the appropriate size.

  • Diapers and wipes: You'll be used to disposables from the hospital, and it can be tough to find cloth diapers small enough for preemies.
  • Bottles: Unless you are exclusively breastfeeding, you'll want enough bottles to get through a day at home. Even most breastfeeding parents enjoy having a partner or friend feed the baby every once in a while, and most preemies take a combo of breast and bottle, at least in the beginning. Ask your NICU nurses which types of bottles and nipples your baby will likely use.
  • Clothing that fits: Most preemies grow quickly, so you don't need lots of preemie size clothes. Your baby will be in newborn sizes soon. 
  • Swaddle blankets and/or sleep sacks: You'll want to practice using them before the first day home, so ask if you can bring them to the NICU before discharge. It helps you feel comfortable using them, and it helps your baby get used to them ahead of time.
  • Somewhere to sleep: Controversy rages over where your baby should sleep, but these guidelines from the American Academy of Pediatrics are a good place to start. Talk with your NICU care team about whether or not your preemie will need a special bed.
  • Formula: Only buy formula if your doctors recommend it. Wait until just before going home to buy any, so you know exactly which formula your baby is using.
  • Baby thermometer: Be sure it's appropriate for use on newborns. Many of the newer digital thermometers are designed for older babies and children.
  • Bathtub: It's perfectly fine to bathe your baby in any basin that is safe, but parents tend to prefer a bathtub designed specifically for babies. If you'll be using one of these, go ahead and pick one before you're already home.
  • Nasal aspirator: Bulb syringes work fine, but parents who have used the Nose Frida snot sucker swear by it. Whatever you choose, you want to be sure to have something on hand to keep your little one's nose clear. 
  • Hand sanitizer: Every visitor should have a quick and easy way to keep germs away from your little one. You might consider face masks, too.
  • Medication syringe: If your preemie is taking any medications, you'll want the equipment used to administer those meds, such as a medication pacifier or syringe. Ask your NICU team for recommendations.

Extras

Those are the necessities. You may find that you need or want some additional items to help you care for your baby at home:

  • Baby monitor: Most parents love having a way to see and hear their babies (preemie or not) when they are in separate rooms. These are different from medical-grade home monitors, which come only with your doctor's orders. Home baby monitors can offer parents great peace of mind.
  • Baby swing: Some babies have gotten used to particular swings at the NICU, so you may want to buy something similar. Check with the NICU care team about what swings are safe for your child (your baby may be too small for some swings, for example).
  • Sling, wrap, or skin-to-skin shirt: Even though your baby is bigger now, there are still benefits to spending time skin-to-skin. Wraps, slings, and shirts designed for this purpose are wonderful ways to continue the practice at home. The best way to transition is to start using the wrap or shirt you like while the baby is still in the NICU, so it's familiar to them. 
  • Hands-free pumping bra: Pumping is a reality for most preemie moms, and these bras are lifesavers. And don't forget the bags for storing milk—you won't have the freebies from the NICU anymore.
  • Baby mobile: This is another item that can be great to have early because you can play the sounds while your baby is still in the NICU, and then those same sounds will be comforting and familiar for your baby when you are home together. 

Get Yourself Ready to Bring Baby Home

Once you have everything you need—a safe space for baby to sleep and the supplies you'll need to get through the first few days or weeks—you're ready to turn your attention to getting yourself ready.

Parents of healthy full-term babies learn about baby care by hanging out with friends who have babies, or by attending classes and reading books. But they don't have their own baby to practice with. They don't have any idea what their baby will actually like or dislike. Preemie parents have the opportunity to learn about their baby before taking them home.

The best way to be ready for your baby at home is to dedicate some time to care for your baby while still in the NICU.

Many parents don't learn enough about their baby while they're still in the NICU. Maybe the NICU staff keeps parents at a distance, or maybe parents feel that the nurses are better at caregiving. Maybe it's simply impossible to spend much time at the NICU when you have other children at home.

Holding your baby is great, but there are lots of ways you can get to know your baby even better. Then when you go home, you'll feel confident and in charge. Before your baby is discharged, learn:

  • How to change your baby's diaper: Let the nurses know that you want to do as many diaper changes as you can. You'll be an expert in no time, and have one less thing to stress about when you take your baby home.
  • How to feed your baby: For some preemies, it is very difficult to safely and efficiently get all the milk they need. In the NICU, practice the different types of feeding you'll do—breast, bottle, syringe, supplemental nursing system, etc. Get all the help you can. Consult a lactation consultant if you're breastfeeding or an occupational therapist or speech-language pathologist if your baby has complicated feedings. And practice, practice, practice. 
  • How to prepare your baby's formula or fortified milk: Many preemies need to have extra calories in their diet, via special formula or supplements. Ask to help with mixing up your baby's milk early on, so you become comfortable with the job.
  • How to take your baby's temperature: Know what is normal for your baby.
  • How to bathe your baby: Ask your nurses to save bath time for you so that you can get the practice you need. Be willing to try different ways of bathing to see what you and your baby like best. 
  • How to swaddle your baby: Nurses have different styles, so try learning from lots of different people. Again, the only way to get good at it is to practice.
  • How to give medications: If your baby will need any medications, such as multi-vitamins or reflux meds, be sure you have the nurses show you a few different ways to give them to your baby and then practice it yourself. 
  • How to soothe your baby: It can be hard to have other people telling you what your baby likes when they're upset. But NICU nurses have tons of experience soothing babies. Take the suggestions and use them as needed. 
  • How to massage your baby: If you are lucky enough to have someone on the hospital staff who can teach you ways to massage your preemie, do it!
  • How to use any special equipment: Some babies will go home with special equipment such as oxygen and feeding tubes. Start practicing with them as soon as possible. There will be goofs and confusions with any kind of home equipment, and it's better to work through those while you still have the NICU staff there to help.
  • How to perform infant CPR: Most parents, thankfully, will never need to use CPR skills, but it is a good feeling to know that you would know what to do in the event of an emergency. If your hospital does not have any CPR training available, ask them where you could take a class. 

Some hospitals allow rooming in, which is when parents stay at the hospital overnight or for several days, practicing independent care of their baby while still in the safety of the hospital setting. Take advantage if this is available to you.

Get Your Support Team Ready to Help

Support will be different for every family, but it is vitally important. Your team may simply be you and your spouse. Or your team may include grandparents, friends, a church community, a formal or informal support group, aunts, uncles and more. To help them help you:

  • Figure out who your support team is. Will you have enough support, or would it make sense to reach out to a close friend or relative to ask for help? If so, do it now rather than later when you may be too tired or overwhelmed to do it. 
  • Think about what you need. Do you want someone to give you a break once a day so you can take a walk or a shower? Do you want help with laundry or meals? Do you want someone to talk to, or peace and quiet for naps? Friends and family members usually want to help but they often don't know what to do, so it's important to tell them what you need.
  • Consider a support group. Pre-term delivery and having a baby in the NICU are scary life events. Taking your baby home may seem like you're entering "normal" baby times, but parents of full-term babies won't appreciate the stressful world you've been living in. Consider connecting with other preemie moms and dads. Research shows it is incredibly helpful. 
  • Choose a pediatrician wisely. If you haven't yet chosen a pediatrician, try to find one who has some experience with pre-term babies. Ask to meet potential doctors and talk with them about their experience with preemies. Your pediatrician is going to be a huge part of your support team, so you want one you can trust and connect with. 
  • Find out which specialists you will be seeing. You will likely see specialists like physical therapists, speech therapists, lactation consultants, and more after you take your preemie home. They, too, will play a vital role on your support team. 
  • Give your family a clear understanding of what visits will be like. Friends and family are naturally excited to finally get to meet your little one. But if you need time to bond and don't want visitors for a month, that's perfectly fine. Once you are ready for visitors, they will need your guidance on how to be great supporters. For starters, you certainly can't have any visitors who are sick.

A Word From Verywell

This list will help you feel a bit more prepared when the joyful day arrives and you get to take your preemie home. Nothing will erase the anxiety you will likely feel, but being prepared is a good start. You can do this.

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  1. Hall SL, Ryan DJ, Beatty J, Grubbs L. Recommendations for peer-to-peer support for NICU parents. J Perinatol. 2015;35 Suppl 1:S9-13. doi:10.1038/jp.2015.143