Medical Help for Mom and Their Preemie

Reviewed by Dan Brennan, MD on July 21, 2021

Some parents know their babies will be born premature. Others are surprised when they go into labor early.

Whether or not you learned ahead of time about the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) -- where preemies go for treatment after they're born -- you'll learn quickly as your baby receives care there.

They'll be in good hands as they are treated by doctors, nurses -- and at most hospitals today, you.

You may not have heard of neonatologists before. They're pediatricians who specialize in treating newborns and preemies in the NICU.

Not every NICU baby sees a neonatologist. Some smaller hospitals only have pediatricians. Others may have both -- older preemies see pediatricians, while younger ones see neonatologists. Both types of doctors have years of experience with on-time and early births.

Many health care workers treat NICU babies:

  • Nurses and nurse practitioners spend the most time caring for preemies.
  • If your newborn needs medicine, they'll get it from a pharmacist.
  • If they have trouble breathing, they'll see a respiratory therapist.
  • Speech-language therapists help preemies with feeding problems. They're experts on mouths and swallowing.
  • Pediatric hospitalists are doctors who work solely in hospitals.
  • At teaching hospitals, you may meet fellows, residents, and medical students who are getting neonatology training at different stages of their careers.

Most hospitals let you care for your preemie in the NICU as much as you're able to, at any hour that's good for you. Doctors and nurses will answer questions and may let you be there when your little one is treated.

Nurses will teach you how to feed your baby, change diapers, keep them warm, and do other tasks to help them grow stronger.

Many NICUs have moms and dads give skin-to-skin care for preemies. You may hear them call it kangaroo care. You place your infant against your bare chest, which helps them stay warm, breathe easier, and sleep more deeply. Some babies nap on their parents' skin. Others simply enjoy the close contact.

You’ll see many machines and monitors in the NICU. Doctors and nurses use them to watch your baby and help them get stronger. They may need help with:

  • Body temperature: Some infants are too young to stay warm on their own. They're put into cozy incubators to ensure that their temps stay up, which helps them grow faster.
  • Breathing: Your baby may need a breathing machine (ventilator) or oxygen.
  • Feeding: Breast milk helps preemies grow and fight infections. NICU nurses will show you how to use a pump. If you can't, your baby may receive donor breast milk.
  • Jaundice: Some newborns turn yellow because their livers can't remove a compound called bilirubin from their blood. Being exposed to bright light (photo therapy) can cure this problem.

Every baby stays in the NICU for a different length of time. Doctors and nurses will tell you what milestones your baby needs to reach before you can take them home. Often these are breathing on their own or staying warm when they are not in the incubator.

When you care for your preemie in the NICU, you'll be well prepared to care for them at home.

Show Sources


Christine Gleason, MD, neonatologist, Seattle Children's Hospital, professor of pediatrics at University of Washington, neonatal consultant, March of Dimes.

Association of Women's Health, Obstetric and Neonatal Nurses: “Premature expectations.”

Kids Health: “When your baby's in the NICU.”

March of Dimes: “Common conditions treated in the NICU.”

American Academy of Pediatrics: “How you can participate in the care of your baby in the NICU.”

American Academy of Pediatrics: “What is a neonatologist?”

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