In my time as a neonatal nurse, I have seen hundreds of babies grow and “graduate” from the NICU. I have watched parents both struggle and blossom through this rollercoaster of an experience.
Parents are often hesitant and nervous about getting involved with their NICU infants. These babies can be so tiny and seem so fragile, and they are often hooked up to multiple wires, tubes, and machines. Do not be afraid to speak up and ask your baby’s nurses and providers questions! We are always happy to help and answer, and you will feel much less intimidated if you know the purpose of the different attachments.
Once acclimated to the NICU setting and materials, you may feel more comfortable and eager to get involved in any way you can. While some NICU parents feel helpless, and it may seem like there is little you can do for your tiny little love, every little interaction with them is significant for both of you.
Reasons To Do Activities With Your NICU Baby
If you need encouragement today, there are many reasons you should find activities to do with your NICU baby. Studies show that when NICU parents do activities with their premature babies, outcomes are better for the whole family. Here are some ways that doing activities with your NICU baby can benefit them and you:
1. Decreased Depression
Mothers of babies in the NICU can experience higher rates of postpartum depression and postpartum anxiety. Getting involved in your baby’s care can decrease stress and depression in new mothers with infants in the NICU.
2. Shorter Stay
NICU babies whose parents are involved in their care have significantly shortened the length of their hospital stays and decreased the likelihood of being readmitted to the hospital.
3. Language Development
Parents who are attentive and sensitive toward their infants can enhance infant language development and decrease the risk of language delays associated with prematurity.
It can be challenging to be apart from your baby if you have been discharged from the hospital while your baby remains there. Finding activities to do with your NICU baby while you visit can facilitate bonding. The more time you spend with your NICU baby, you will get to know your baby’s quirks, preferences, and tendencies, and they will continue to learn your voice, touch, and smell!
Activities To Do With Your NICU Baby
Now that you understand the importance of interacting with your baby in the NICU, here are some ideas on what you can do with them. Brainstorming activities to do with any baby can be challenging, not just a preterm baby! Even mothers of full-term infants often struggle to know how to fill their days with a newborn. When you add in the fragility of a preterm baby, thinking of things to do with them can feel overwhelming and intimidating. Here are some activities that you can try with your NICU baby.
1. Infant Massage
Talk to your baby’s nurse or provider about whether your baby is stable enough, old enough, and large enough for infant massage. With a healthcare professional’s approval, here is a guide on how to try infant massage on your baby:
- Make sure the infant is in a ready state—they should be awake and alert but quiet.
- Gather supplies, such as unscented massage oil or lotion.
- Dim the lights.
- Keep your baby warm by leaving them in the incubator or radiant warmer or by keeping them swaddled except the area you are massaging.
- Warm oil or lotion (if you are using it) by rubbing it between your hands.
- Use firm, smooth strokes, start at the feet, and work your way up. Massage each leg, the abdomen, chest, each arm, back, and scalp, but avoid the face. Avoid the leads where the monitor attaches to your baby.
- Try doing gentle “bicycle kicks” with your baby’s legs by alternating moving the baby’s knees to the chest.
- Monitor your baby for signs of distress or overstimulation, and take breaks as needed.
This should be a relaxing and positive experience for you both! Infant massage can counteract all the negative touches your baby may experience while in the NICU. It also helps you to release bonding hormones. Try it out!
Live singing to NICU babies has been shown to stabilize vital signs, soothe, improve feeding behaviors and sucking patterns, enhance bonding, and decrease stress for the baby. You can choose any song or lullaby and sing it softly to your baby. It does not matter if you think you are a “good” singer. Your baby wants to hear YOUR voice! Your favorite song may even become their favorite song because they love hearing you sing it.
If you feel uncomfortable singing to your baby, you can also try talking to them. Your baby recognizes your voice from their time in your womb and is soothed by its familiarity. Babies whose parents talk to them show increased growth and other physiological and emotional benefits. If you do not know what you say, you can read books to your baby. Many children’s hospitals have a library that you can borrow from or bring a favorite children’s book from home. I have even seen some parents read their own favorite books aloud (like Harry Potter!) to their NICU babies! You can also tell your baby stories about their family or your day or simply narrate what is happening around them.
4. Kangaroo Care
Kangaroo care is a term to describe holding your baby close to your chest while getting lots of skin-to-skin contact between the two of you. Your breath, heartbeat, and body heat helps to regulate your baby’s temperature, breathing, oxygen, and heart rate. If you are breastfeeding, this contact can also help to increase your milk supply. To do kangaroo care, follow these steps below:
- Ask your baby’s nurse or provider for permission and assistance.
- Remove all clothing from baby except for the diaper and a hat.
- Wear a shirt or hospital gown that opens in the front.
- Place your baby on your exposed chest.
- Cover the baby’s back with a blanket.
- Relax and snuggle your baby!
- Take deep, calming breaths and focus on your baby.
- Allow your baby to relax—avoid overstimulating them with play, noise, or toys.
You should aim to do kangaroo care with your baby for at least one hour a few times a week for maximum benefits.
If your baby is taking feeds by mouth and you are attempting to breastfeed, you can ask your baby’s nurse or doctor if you may try putting them to your breast to feed from you directly! Usually, your baby must be a certain size and on mild or no breathing support before this is possible. I have assisted many moms with putting their babies to their breasts while still in the NICU. Offering your baby your breast early and often is a great way to familiarize them with breastfeeding.
If your baby is not stable enough to breastfeed directly, you can also pump at your baby’s bedside. Pumping in your baby’s room while looking at them can also help increase your milk supply. Many NICUs will provide a hospital-grade pump to use while your baby is being treated there. Many NICUs also have a lactation consultant on staff that is particularly knowledgeable on breastfeeding for preemies. Do not be afraid to ask for help and supplies! These resources are there for you. You may even be able to help your baby’s nurse feed your pumped breastmilk through a syringe or bottle.
6. Participate in Nursing Care
The NICU team usually has each baby on a schedule where they get vital signs, feeds, and diaper changes every few hours. NICU nurses often encourage parents at the bedside to assist in these tasks if their baby is stable enough. Parents can assist nursing staff in taking the baby’s temperature and changing their diaper. If your baby is feeding from a bottle, the parents may be able to try to bottle-feed their baby. Of course, this depends on the infant’s stability, but most nurses love to help parents get involved and appreciate the assistance! Talk to your baby’s care team about whether this might be something you can do.
Having a baby in the NICU can be an incredibly overwhelming experience. There is so much to learn amid a huge transition to parenthood and postpartum. Hopefully, this article empowers you to find ways to bond with your NICU baby. Your baby’s care team is rooting for you and would love to teach you baby care techniques and help you with any of the activities listed. Ask questions and start small, but I encourage you to find something that you can do with your little one that makes you both feel good.