- The neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) has specialist medical staff and equipment to care for premature and sick newborn babies.
- Babies may need to spend time in the NICU if they were born early or small, if there were complications during the birth or if they have another medical condition.
- Parents are usually welcome in the NICU 24 hours a day. Other visitors are usually limited.
- NICU staff will teach you how to care for your baby and show you how to hold your baby skin-to-skin (known as 'kangaroo care').
- Staff will help you to begin breast feeding when you and your baby are ready.
What is NICU?
The neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) has specialist medical staff and equipment to care for premature and sick newborn babies. This part of the hospital is sometimes called the intensive care nursery or newborn intensive care unit.
When babies no longer need the high level of care offered in the NICU, they may be transferred to a special care nursery or special care baby unit.
The NICU has highly trained staff and advanced life support equipment designed to meet the unique needs of newborn babies. Not all maternity hospitals have a NICU, so if your baby needs specialised care, you may need to travel to a different hospital.
Babies may need to spend time in a NICU if:
- they are premature (born before 37 weeks gestation)
- there were complications during labour
- there are complications such as breathing problems, infections, birth defects or the baby needs surgery
- they have a low birth weight (less than 2.5 kg)
- they are a twin, triplet or from other multiple births
Babies usually go to the NICU within the first 24 hours after birth. The medical team will discuss with you how long they expect your baby to stay in the NICU.
What can I expect to see in the NICU?
It may seem overwhelming the first time you see your baby in this highly specialised area of the hospital. Understanding how the NICU works may help you cope better, so you can focus on looking after your baby.
Babies in the NICU can easily catch infections like colds, flu and diarrhoea, so it is very important for all visitors to sanitise their hands before they enter. You can use soap and water or the antibacterial gels provided.
NICUs are usually quiet and calm places, so babies aren’t overwhelmed by noise and light. There may be times when the lights are dimmed so the babies can rest. The aim is for staff to handle babies as little as possible.
Each baby is in an incubator or heated cot to keep their body at the right temperature. There may also be equipment such as:
- a ventilator to help with breathing
- machines to deliver fluids and medicines through tubes in their veins
- monitors attached to the baby's body to check their heart rate, breathing rate and oxygen levels
Can I have contact with my baby in the NICU?
Parents are usually welcome in the NICU 24 hours a day, but other visitors may be limited. Remember, babies in the NICU can get very sick if they catch an infection. If you or someone you have contact with has been ill, talk to the medical staff before you come on to the ward.
Bonding with your baby and helping to care for them will help them get well. NICU staff will include you wherever possible in your baby’s care, and will teach you how to look after your baby. This may include how to change nappies, take the baby's temperature, and how to bathe, feed and cuddle them.
You may be able to provide 'kangaroo care', or skin-to-skin care, with your baby. Holding your baby next to your skin is helpful for both parents and babies. For example, it helps to regulate your baby's body temperature, heart rate and breathing rate. It can also help them gain weight and can improve your breast milk production.
Kangaroo care is not suitable for all babies, so ask the NICU staff. Even if your baby is not well enough for kangaroo care, you can still comfort them by stroking them, letting them hold your finger or by talking and singing to them.
How do I feed my baby in the NICU?
Many babies in the NICU may not be able to breastfeed at first. They will feed through a tube in their nose that carries the milk straight to their stomach (called 'gavage feeding').
The NICU staff may ask you to express breast milk to feed your baby. Your breast milk may be stored in the fridge or frozen to use later. Expressing milk will keep up your milk supply so you are able to breastfeed if/when you and your baby are ready.
Can I breastfeed in the NICU?
Holding your baby skin-to-skin can help your baby feel secure and can help to stimulate your milk supply. Skin-to-skin feeding is a good way to help prepare you and your baby for breastfeeding.
When you hold your baby skin-to-skin you may notice them becoming more alert, sucking their fingers or lips and moving closer towards your breast. These are signs that your baby may be ready to feed.
Babies in the NICU usually progress through a number of stages when starting to breast feed. They may start by nuzzling and licking your nipple. They may then move towards your breast and take a few sucks. With time, they will take more sucks and start to swallow, and will do so for longer periods of time. Eventually, they will be looking to breastfeed for every feed.
If your baby is very premature or sick, it may take time for your baby to breastfeed well. In many cases, this may take weeks – this is very normal. Hold your baby skin-to-skin and try to go at their pace. With time, your baby will start to feed better.
If you do not want to breastfeed or don't produce enough milk, the staff will discuss formula feeding with you.
I'm finding it difficult to cope with my feelings – what can I do?
Having a baby in the NICU can be an emotional experience. Some parents find it hard to cope with having an unwell baby. It is normal to feel sad and frightened, overwhelmed or disappointed. It can be especially hard to go home without your baby.
Parents might be worried that they won’t be able to bond with their baby.
Make sure you talk to the staff if you have any concerns. Many NICUs offer parent support groups where you can share your experiences with other families. Don’t forget to look after yourself too — make sure you eat well and try to get enough sleep.
If you have a baby in a NICU and need support, call the free 24-hour Miracle Babies Foundation NurtureLine on 1300 622 243, or visit miraclebabies.org.au.
You can also call Pregnancy, Birth and Baby on 1800 882 436 to speak to a maternal child health nurse.
Speak to a maternal child health nurse
Call Pregnancy, Birth and Baby to speak to a maternal child health nurse on 1800 882 436 or video call. Available 7am to midnight (AET), 7 days a week.
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Last reviewed: June 2022