10 Things Your NICU Nurses Wish You Knew

Parents who first enter the neonatal intensive care unit, or NICU, may feel shocked, nervous, afraid, and yet yearning to be near their baby. It’s a normal reaction—one that most parents have when they first enter the world of the NICU.

You may first feel as if you have no idea how to handle the situation, but with time, new preemie parents grow confident in their understanding of what is happening and what to expect. So even if you're feeling lost now, give these 10 suggestions below a try. They'll get you off to a good start.


Do Your Research, But Don't Overwhelm Yourself

Preemie being held by NICU nurse

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When you’re about to go online to look up preemie-related questions, take a moment to ask yourself: "Do I really need this information right now?" Stumbling across preemie stories with negative outcomes may make you anxious. If you’re going to stress and fret all night long after reading about worst-case scenarios, it's just not worth it.

Instead, talk to your baby's doctors and nurses and consult with other NICU parents you meet. If you must go online to do research because you feel you’re just not getting the answers you need, remember that the scary stuff and the negativity is not your baby and it’s not guaranteed for every baby. Stay focused on the positives.


Consider Personalizing Your Space

woman looking at baby in NICU crib

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The NICU is not a place that feels like home. Loud machines, plastic incubators, monitors beeping, and hospital smells make it hard to feel comfortable. There's very little that feels "homey," to say the least. It's certainly not what new parents dream of when they dream of their baby's first few days. You can change that—if only by a little bit—by bringing in items that help you feel at home.

Check with your NICU, but often parents can bring items such as:

  • Baby blankets (for a personal touch to remind them of home)
  • Baby clothes (when your baby is ready to be dressed in clothes)
  • Pictures of mom, dad, siblings, pets, family, etc., to tape to the incubator
  • Stuffed animals (to place near the bedside, not in bed with baby)
  • Items of spiritual significance, such as prayer cards or rosary beads (again, to place near the bedside, not in bed with baby)
  • Drawings from siblings, notes from parents, etc.

Why bother? Because when you feel a little bit more comfortable in your surroundings, it helps ease your anxiety and makes the time together more enjoyable. And that's well worth it.


Acknowledge Your Feelings

NICU mom with depression

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Are you feeling worried because your baby is in the NICU? Well, that makes sense. Nobody is surprised by that emotion in the NICU. Feeling sad? Again, no surprise.

But are you feeling wild, insane jealousy? Jealous of your friends who are still pregnant, of the baby in the bed next to yours who is going home tomorrow, of every single family who didn’t have to go through the NICU?

And then the next instant, are you feeling terrible guilt for not being able to carry your baby to term, for having a baby who isn’t as sick as the baby in the next bed, maybe feeling as though you've burdened your baby with faulty genetics? You’re not alone. It’s natural to feel this way.

Every single emotion imaginable has raced through the hearts and minds of parents of preterm infants: Fear, anger, rage, depression, anxiety, hopelessness, remorse, grief, confusion, and countless others. So don’t feel surprised or alone because of your feelings. They’re normal, and they will fade in time. But you do need to pay attention to them and get help if they overwhelm you.


Take Good Care of Yourself

tired woman sleeping upright in a chair

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NICU parents who spend hours and days and months in the NICU are often desperately in need of help themselves. Some are utterly sleep-deprived and anxious 24/7, some are going through postpartum depression, and others may exhibit symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder.

While parents of preterm infants are surrounded by doctors and nurses day in and day out in the NICU, it is the responsibility and priority of the NICU staff to focus on the health of the baby. Parents are often so worried about their preemie that they may overlook their own mental well-being, as well.

Many NICU nurses make an effort to be aware of the emotional strain that parents are feeling, this is not always the case. Some parents say they received little to no emotional support from the NICU. Fortunately, more NICUs are starting to change that and prioritize the well-being of parents, as well as babies.

But it's up to you to reach out. Ask the NICU staff if there are social workers available. Ask if there’s a support group for NICU parents (because they really do help). Seek a therapist. Or check out NICU Healing, an incredible online resource for navigating the emotions that come with everything about the NICU, as well as the stress that comes with having a preemie.

Maybe you don’t feel you can or should focus on your own emotional health when your baby is suffering. But in order to be the best caregiver you can be for your baby, it is crucial to take care of your own health as well.


Take Care of Your Relationships

upset couple sitting on couch

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The NICU will inevitably put a strain on your relationship. Each partner has a different way of handling the intense emotions that arise, and this difference often causes friction.

Do what you can to take care of your relationship—your baby will only benefit from it as a result. Take walks together every once in a while, talk honestly about your emotions, and be extra patient with each other. Try your very best to honor the way your partner needs to cope with the ordeal and, at the same time, honor the way you need to cope, too.

The NICU can also strain relationships with other children in the family. It can feel as though you can't possibly meet everyone's needs. You can only do your best, remembering that everyone in the family is feeling the stress.

If your relationship was already strained, or if you're feeling it getting too uncomfortable, now’s the time to get some help. Consider reaching out to a qualified marriage and family therapist.


Don't Judge Your NICU Parenting

Mother holding premature baby in NICU

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Some parents fret over whether they're visiting too much or not enough, whether they're asking too many questions or too few. They're worried they're not "doing it right."

There is no right or wrong. Just try to do what feels best to you. If you want to visit your baby often, great. If you want or need time away from the NICU, that’s fine, too. If you want to quietly read stories to your baby or sing lullabies, go for it.

If you want to be included in more of your baby’s care, speak up and let the nurses know. If you meet resistance from the staff, try to work together with them, but be clear about your parenting goals. 


Stay Informed and Speak Up

NICU nurse and NICU mom talking

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Ask lots of questions—right from the beginning and throughout your stay. The doctors and nurses are working for you. Their job is not only to care for your baby but also to help you understand what’s going on and why.

If you’re confused or worried or frustrated and you don’t speak up, the staff will never know. They will most likely think you understand everything that’s going on. So ask. They've heard it all, and there are no dumb questions.

If you think about it, many different types of families come through the NICU. The staff really have no way of predicting what anyone wants. Don’t wait for the nurses or doctors to ask you. If there’s something you want to know, then please speak up.

And if you ever see something that makes you feel afraid for your baby, or if you believe mistakes have been made, definitely do not hesitate to speak up. Your baby is counting on you to be an advocate for them.


Insist on Kangaroo Care as Much as Possible

NICU mom holding preemie skin-to-skin

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Every NICU does it differently, but skin-to-skin holding or "kangaroo care" is undeniably beneficial. It supports your baby’s weight gain, temperature stability, oxygenation, and more. For parents, kangaroo care enhances bonding and provides a sense of being a needed and important part of your baby’s life.

Sometimes nurses are very busy, so on some days, it might be up to you to ask for kangaroo care. Even as babies get older and are dressed in clothes, it's still important to the health and vitality of your preemie to practice skin-to-skin contact.

If in the odd chance your request is met with any resistance, you could always quote from an article on the topic or speak to the charge nurse or your baby’s doctor.


Ask for the Nurses You Like

NICU nurse holding preemie baby

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If you've grown fond of one nurse in particular, you can ask about having that nurse be your baby’s primary nurse. Some hospitals don’t do primary nursing, but it never hurts to ask.

On the flip side, if you don’t like a particular nurse, you can ask not to have that nurse assigned to your baby. It is perfectly acceptable, and it does happen from time to time. And regardless, this is your baby, so you should feel comfortable with the people who are responsible for their care. The NICU journey can be a very long one, so make the most of it by asking to have the neonatal caregivers you prefer.


Look for the Positives

mother touching baby's foot in NICU

 Jill Lehmann Photography / Getty Images

It may take effort, but try to look for something positive amidst all of this. You may be thinking, “How can there be anything good about my baby struggling to live?”

And yet, there are little bright moments in most days—a day of less bradycardia (slow heart rate) spells, or perhaps a tiny little weight gain? There is good in doing a diaper change for the first time, even if you felt terrified. ​There is good in the new friendships you make with other NICU parents.

There’s the first time your little baby can wear clothes or takes a first full feeding. There’s feeling their tiny hand in yours. There's the strength you're gaining by getting up day after day and being there for your child.

It’s up to you to decide. Will you focus 100% of your attention on all the difficulty, stress, and anxiety, or can you spare a little energy looking for the good? If you can, you’ll feel a whole lot better. Give yourself permission to cherish these little joys. Find reasons to smile, laugh, and celebrate.

3 Sources
Verywell Family uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Holditch-Davis D, Santos H, Levy J, et al. Patterns of psychological distress in mothers of preterm infants. Infant Behav Dev. 2015;41:154-63. doi:10.3109/01612840.2013.789943

  2. Hall SL, Ryan DJ, Beatty J, Grubbs L. Recommendations for peer-to-peer support for NICU parents. J Perinatol. 2015;35(S1):S9-13. doi:10.1038/jp.2015.143

  3. Campbell-Yeo M, Disher T, Benoit B, Johnston C. Understanding kangaroo care and its benefits to preterm infants. Pediatric Health Med Ther. 2015;6:15-32. doi:10.2147/PHMT.S51869

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.