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Special care nursery (SCN)

5-minute read

Some babies will need to spend time in a special care nursery, or ‘SCN’, after they are born. They may be admitted to an SCN for several reasons, but it’s important to know that even if your baby can't leave hospital straight away, they are on the road to becoming stronger.

What is a special care nursery?

Babies are admitted to a special care nursery (SCN) when they need extra care from specially trained staff. Your baby may need this care even if they can maintain their own body temperature and generally breathe on their own.

An SCN is different from a neonatal intensive care unit (NICU), where the babies are more seriously ill or premature, and need closer observation and care. If your baby is in an SCN, their health is more stable and they are stronger than babies who are in a NICU.

Babies may need to be in a special care nursery because:

  • they were born prematurely and need extra care
  • they may have health issues such as jaundice, low blood sugar or temporary breathing problems
  • they were born with a low birth weight
  • they were moved from a NICU as their health improved

In an SCN, you will often receive help with feeding and preparing to take your baby home.

Special care nursery staff

There may be different types of trained staff in a special care nursery:

  • neonatologists, who specialise in looking after premature or ill newborns
  • paediatricians
  • nurses and midwives with special training in neonatal care
  • lactation consultants
  • allied healthcare providers such as physiotherapists, speech pathologists and occupational therapists
  • other medical specialists such as anaesthetists or surgeons, if your baby needs them 

And as a parent, you are of course considered an important part of your baby’s healthcare team.

What you can expect to see in a special care nursery

If your baby has been moved from a NICU, you will notice that much of the specialised equipment that you saw there is not in the special care nursery.

In an SCN, your baby may start off sleeping in an incubator (also known as a 'humidicrib') then move into an open cot. There may be equipment in the room that monitors your baby’s oxygen level, heart rate and breathing, or to treat jaundice. Nursery staff will explain any equipment or procedures that your baby will need.

The environment in a special care nursery is likely to be quiet, and you will be asked to whisper or talk quietly. This is because a low noise level is important for your baby’s brain development and to keep them calm. There may be a quiet ‘baby rest’ period during the day, when your baby can sleep undisturbed, with little noise or handling.

Contact with your baby

You can see your baby as often and for as long as you like in the SCN, and staff will encourage you to have plenty of hands-on contact. This includes holding, feeding ,changing nappies and bathing your baby.

Other members of your family, such as grandparents or your other children, can visit – although you may be restricted to 2 or 3 people visiting at any one time.

Hygiene in the SCN

It’s important that your baby’s environment is clean and free of germs since babies in a special care nursery are more prone to catching infections. Visitors will need to use the nursery’s hand washing and sanitising facilities.

People should also avoid visiting your baby if they are unwell – for example, if they have a cold, diarrhoea or are vomiting. If you’re not sure about the health of a visitor – or yourself – speak with your baby’s doctor or a staff member in the nursery.

Feeding your baby

Your baby may need to be fed using a tube before they are strong enough to take milk from your breast or a bottle. You will be encouraged to give your baby breastmilk if you want to, and a lactation specialist may be available to support you. You may be shown how to express milk by hand or by using a breast pump.

When will my baby be discharged?

Your baby is likely to be discharged when:

  • they have reached their due date
  • they can regulate their own body temperature, in a cot
  • they are a suitable weight
  • feeding has been established
  • they have finished any intravenous medications

How you might be feeling

You may have mixed feelings about your baby being in a special care nursery. These feelings may range from being overwhelmed by the equipment to being happy and excited that your baby has moved from the NICU. You may, in fact, be anxious that they are receiving less intensive care than in the NICU.

It’s possible that you may need to go home before your baby does, or your baby may be transported to a special care nursery in a hospital closer to your home. But you can ask the SCN staff any questions at any time, as well as talk to them about how you are feeling.

For more help and information

  • Speak with your baby’s doctor or midwife.
  • Speak with other staff in your baby’s special care nursery.
  • Call Pregnancy, Birth and Baby on 1800 882 436 to speak with a maternal child health nurse.

Learn more here about the development and quality assurance of healthdirect content.

Last reviewed: October 2021

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