April 15, 2024

Having a newborn in the neonatal intensive care unit can be scary. Our expert explains what parents can expect.

For most moms and dads, the first — and maybe only time — you are in a neonatal intensive care unit may be under high-stakes circumstances: Your newborn needs extra attention after a premature or complicated birth. 

 “Those of us who work in the neonatal intensive care unit — or ‘NICU,’ for short — receive extra training to give your baby specialized care,” said Dr. Emily A. Morris, a neonatologist and associate NICU medical director at Monroe Carell Jr. Children’s Hospital at Vanderbilt. “We understand that the NICU can be an unfamiliar place — even overwhelming or frightening — when you first visit. Rest assured that everything we do is for the health and safety of your baby, and our staff are there to help transition into your new role as NICU parents.”

If you are pregnant and know in advance that your baby might initially be in the NICU after delivery, you might gain a little peace of mind by learning what to expect, Morris said. Here are six facts to help you get to know the NICU at Monroe Carell before your visit. 

1. The NICU at Vanderbilt is a locked unit.

As welcoming as we aim to be, the first experience that you have when entering the NICU is that the door must be opened by someone inside the unit. 

“Your baby’s safety and privacy are our top priority,” Morris said. “That’s why the doors must stay locked.” 

2. A medical receptionist will greet you and ask who you are here to see.

There can be as many as 115 babies in the neonatal intensive care unit at any time, which means there are many family members to account for. The receptionist will ask to see your ID band or bracelet, which identifies you as a person who has an infant in the unit. Additionally, the receptionist will track visitor numbers because there is a limit on the number of people who can be at your baby’s bedside at one time.  

The staff strives to keep your baby’s room like you would at home: as quiet as possible to allow for rest and recovery. However, there will likely be a lot of medical equipment in the room, which will make it feel strange and unfamiliar.  

 “If it’s your first visit, someone will assist or direct you to your baby’s room,” Morris said. “This first sight of your tiny baby in a medical setting can be frightening. Take it slow and be patient with yourself. Ask any questions that come to mind. Our staff members are there to help.” 

 3. You’ll see a flurry of activity at some babies’ beds, while others are quiet and still.

You will always see a nurse who will welcome you and give you an update on your baby’s care and condition. Other team members will include your baby’s doctor or nurse practitioner, who will be able to answer your questions and discuss the plan of care. You’ll see care partners assisting the nursing staff and social workers who can help you with any questions and concerns. Other team members include physical therapists, occupational therapists, lactation consultants, child life specialists and speech therapists. You will also be assigned a case manager, who will follow your baby’s progress and work closely with you as the time nears for your baby to go home. 

“Never forget that  you, the parent, are the most important part of this team,” Morris said. “We need you, and your baby needs you, most of all.” 

4. You’ll hear beeps and alarms.

All babies in the NICU are connected by tiny electrodes or wires to a heart monitor. This helps the care team follow each baby’s heart rate and other vital signs. These machines are set with alarms to tell  nurses if a baby’s heart rate drops low or runs too high. If your baby is on a ventilator to help with breathing, you may also hear sounds of air and mechanical movement. 

5. You’ll see feeding tubes and intravenous lines.

Most babies first admitted into a NICU cannot bottle feed. They may have a feeding tube in their nose or mouth, as well as an IV (intravenous) line for fluids. 

“To maintain temperature and other conditions, some babies are in incubators, which we call Giraffe or Drager beds, after the name of the product,” Morris said. “Others are in cribs or bassinets.” 

 6. Always, always ask questions.

If you are unsure or do not understand something, always ask.  

“After all, we share the same goal: making sure your baby — and you — receive excellent care,” Morris said. “We want to help in any way we can.” 

Additionally, there are resources that help you as parents cope with the stress of a NICU stay. This father learned excellent strategies for dealing with his daughter’s long NICU hospitalization.

Ask your baby’s care team about any specific resources you need. Every family is unique. 

Expert care for you and your baby

Each pregnancy and delivery is unique and yours should be too. Learn more about how Vanderbilt Health’s obstetrics and Monroe Carell Jr. Children’s Hospital at Vanderbilt’s Level IV NICU provide you and your baby unmatched expert care. With the highest accredited NICU in the region, you and your baby have everything you need, all in one place.

To learn more, call 615-322-0963.

Read More