If your premature infant (preemie) is admitted to the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) after birth, you will find out about new technologies, new medical words, and new rules and procedures.
You will depend on the NICU staff members, including neonatologists and nurses, to know how to care for your infant and to be your teachers. With their help, you can quickly learn about your infant's needs and what you can do for your infant. Throughout your infant's stay in the NICU, you will want to keep open communication with the staff.
First you'll learn to scrub up before visiting your infant's bedside. When you're there, you may be surprised by the number of machines and instruments surrounding your child. Remember that because of these machines your premature infant has a much greater chance of doing well than ever before.
At a minimum, your infant will be warmed and watched over with equipment that includes:
- An isolette or overhead heater.
- A temperature probe, to keep track of body temperature.
- A heart monitor, to keep track of breathing and heart rate.
- A pulse oximeter to keep track of how much oxygen is in the blood.
If your infant has additional medical needs, other tests and equipment also may be used, including:
- A transcutaneous oxygen and/or carbon dioxide monitor, to constantly measure these levels in the blood without using a needle.
- An intravenous (IV) site, for giving medicine, fluids, and feedings.
- An umbilical catheter, for giving medicine, fluids, and feedings, and for drawing blood.
- A ventilator, for help with breathing.
- Continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP), for help with breathing. (This is usually for mild to moderate apnea of prematurity and mild lung problems or for weaning from a ventilator.
- A cranial ultrasound, to check for brain bleeding or damage, usually between days 3 and 7 after birth.
- A chest X-ray, to check for lung damage. It may also be used to check the positioning of an endotracheal tube if one is used to assist with breathing.
- An abdominal X-ray. This is to check the intestines for necrotizing enterocolitis and to check the position of the umbilical catheter.
- An echocardiogram, to check the heart for congenital heart defects or patent ductus arteriosus.
- Phototherapy, to help treat jaundice.
Your role in your infant's care
At first sight, you may question whether and even how to touch your tiny infant. Unless your newborn is very sick or immature, you will be allowed to touch and possibly hold him or her. But your infant's nurse or doctor will first need to show you how to work around the technology and to alert you to your infant's special needs. When visiting with your premature newborn, remember that:
- A premature infant has limited energy for recovering and growing. Try not to wake your infant from sleep.
- A premature newborn's brain isn't quite ready for the world. Be alert to signs that your infant is being overstimulated, such as a change in heart rate or a need to turn away from you. This can be triggered by your gaze, voice, or touch, or by sound and light in the room.
- A stable, more mature preemie will thrive on periods of cuddling (kangaroo care), infant massage, and calming music.
If you're not able to hold or help your infant, you can give him or her an immunity boost by providing breast milk. Regardless of whether you plan to breastfeed or bottle-feed later on, pumped breast milk for tube-feeding reduces your infant's risk of infection.
As your infant grows stronger, you will be able to take on more caregiving tasks. These range from holding and feeding to changing diapers and bathing. You can count on the NICU nurses to teach you and answer your questions. If you are breastfeeding, you may be asked to spend the night with your infant to find out if he or she is strong enough to nurse around the clock.