Special Babies, Special Care

The Parent's Role

How do nurses help the parents of a NICU baby?

NICU nurses spend lots of time with families and usually get to know them well. In essence, they're a one-stop information and service resource. "We provide the family with 24-hours-a-day updates on their baby's health status. We also work with parents to help them provide as much care for their baby as they can," Fumagalli says. For example, a NICU nurse can teach a new mom how to feed a baby who has difficulty sucking, help parents read monitors and adjust medical equipment, and simplify complicated health issues. "By the time their baby leaves the NICU, the parents are often practically nurses themselves," she says.

NICU nurses also work with a social worker to help parents handle this difficult time. "Many hospitals offer NICU parent support groups. I think talking to people who are going through the same challenges really makes families feel better," Fumagalli says.

Can moms breast- or bottlefeed their NICU babies?

One of the most challenging parts of caring for babies in the NICU is that many of them may have trouble feeding, at least at first. In the beginning, many can't nurse or bottlefeed and receive nutrients through an IV. "Some don't know how to suck, and others suck very weakly," Fumagalli says. "Plus, they tire very easily, so it may be hard for them to get a lot of food down. In addition, lots of premature babies have digestive problems too." As a result, they need to be fed small amounts at a time, which are carefully monitored, and they need to use special preemie-friendly bottles and nipples. The nurses assist mothers in breast- and bottlefeeding their babies. Often, new mothers will need to pump their milk to use in bottles at first, so the nurses can see exactly how much a baby is taking in while in the NICU.

What does a NICU baby usually look like?

Because many NICU babies are preemies, they may appear tiny and fragile, and their head may be proportionally bigger than their body. "They usually have a lot less body fat than fullterm kids, so they may look skinny, too," Fumagalli says.

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