What is a special care nursery?
Your baby might be admitted to a special care nursery (SCN). This happens when they need more care than is available on a normal ward.
An SCN is different from a neonatal intensive care unit (NICU). Babies in the NICU are more seriously ill and need more care than babies in the SCN.
Babies may need to be in a special care nursery because:
- they were born prematurely (early) and need extra care
- they have health issues such as jaundice, low blood sugar or breathing problems
- they have been born with a low birth weight
- they have moved from a NICU as their health has improved
Almost 1 in 5 babies in Australia is admitted to an SCN or NICU.
In an SCN, you will often get help with feeding and preparing to take your baby home.
Special care nursery staff
There are many specially trained staff in the special care nursery:
- doctors who specialise in looking after premature or ill newborn babies
- nurses and midwives with special training in neonatal care
- lactation consultants to help with expressing breastmilk and breastfeeding,
- allied healthcare providers such as physiotherapists, speech pathologists and occupational therapists
As a parent, you are considered an important part of your baby’s healthcare team.
What can I expect to see in a special care nursery?
Your baby may start off sleeping in an incubator (also known as a humidicrib) before moving to a cot.
There may be equipment in the room that monitors your baby’s:
- oxygen level
- heart rate
There may also be equipment to treat jaundice. Nursery staff will explain any equipment or procedures that your baby needs.
If your baby has been moved from an NICU, you may notice less specialised equipment in the SCN.
Can I see my baby in the SCN?
You can see your baby as often as you like in the SCN. Staff will encourage you to have plenty of hands-on contact. This includes:
The 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 period during the day, when your baby can sleep undisturbed, with little noise or handling.
Other members of your family can visit your baby. Visitors may be restricted to 2 or 3 people at a time.
Different hospitals will have different rules around visiting. It’s best to check with the staff in the SCN.
Hygiene in the SCN
It’s important that the special care nursery is clean and free of germs. This is because babies in the SCN are more likely to catch infections.
Visitors will need to use the nursery’s hand washing and sanitising facilities.
You should also avoid visiting your baby if you are unwell — for example, if you:
If you’re not sure whether you’re well enough to visit — speak with a staff member.
How do I feed my baby in the SCN?
Your baby may need to be fed using a tube. As they get stronger they will take milk from your breast or a bottle.
You may be shown how to:
- express milk by hand
- use a breast pump
A lactation specialist may be available to support you.
When will my baby be discharged?
This will be different for every baby.
Your baby may be discharged when:
- they have grown enough to not need medical help
- they can regulate their own body temperature
- they are a suitable weight
- feeding has been established
- they have finished any intravenous medicines
It’s best to ask the special care nursery staff when your baby may be able to come home.
I'm finding it difficult to cope with my feelings — what can I do?
You may have mixed feelings about your baby being in a special care nursery. These feelings may range from:
- being overwhelmed by the equipment
- being happy that your baby has moved from the NICU
- being anxious that they are getting less specialised care than in the NICU
It’s possible that you may be sent home before your baby. Your baby may then be moved to a special care nursery in a hospital closer to your home.
You can talk to the SCN staff about how you are feeling. If you need more support, they can arrange for a social worker to meet with you.
Resources and support
You can speak with the staff in your baby’s special care nursery.
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.
Learn more here about the development and quality assurance of healthdirect content.
Last reviewed: April 2023