What Is the NICU?
What does the NICU look like, and how does it differ from a regular hospital nursery?
Unlike a hospital nursery, which is usually a collection of small plastic bassinets filled with snugly sleeping babies, a NICU is filled with rows of babies in incubators or isolettes, which look like large clear plastic containers. "The thing that surprises parents most is the amount of medical equipment in the area -- respirators, warming tables, IVs, blood-pressure monitors," says Fumagalli. "It can be overwhelming." Some or all of the equipment will be used for your baby, depending upon his needs. Regardless of how much equipment surrounds him, "you can still play a very active role in being a parent, which is important for parent-infant bonding," says Fumagalli.
Can parents hold and touch their babies who are in incubators?
Sick and premature babies have a lot of trouble regulating their body temperature, so they need to be kept warm in an incubator. "But that doesn't mean parents can't touch them. They can reach in and touch their baby with special gloves that are threaded through the incubator," says Fumagalli. "Depending upon the baby's health status, they may also be able to take her out for periods of time to feed her and care for her." Many experts recommend that premature babies get daily kangaroo care -- time spent pressed against their mother's bare skin -- because it promotes the parent-child bond and, in some cases, helps babies gain weight and thrive.
What are some signs that a hospital has a good NICU, and should parents consider this when choosing a place to give birth?
"If you know that you're at risk for complications, whether or not a hospital has a NICU is an important consideration," Fumagalli says. Hospitals are ranked by levels; a level 2 hospital may have a neonatologist (a doctor who specializes in caring for newborns) on staff and some NICU equipment, while a level 3 hospital has a full NICU and staff, including NICU nurses, neonatologists, respiratory therapists, and social workers trained to meet the needs of families with sick newborns. Large teaching and big-city hospitals are often level 3, Fumagalli notes. Another important factor is the NICU's newborn fatality rate. The lower it is, the better the facility.