Babies who are born prematurely or who are sick may need to be admitted to a neonatal intensive care unit (NICU). It may seem overwhelming the first time you see your baby in this highly specialised area of the hospital, but understanding how it works will help you cope better so you can focus on looking after your baby.

What is a 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 the 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 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 delivery
  • 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 are typically admitted within the first 24 hours after birth. The medical team will discuss with you how long your baby is expected to stay, which usually depends on their condition, and what developmental stage they need to reach before they can go home.

What to expect in the NICU

Babies in the NICU can easily catch infections like colds, flu, rashes and diarrhoea, so it is very important for all visitors to sterilise their hands — using the taps and antibacterial gels provided — before they enter.

NICUs are usually quiet and calm places since the babies can be 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 via tubes in their veins, and monitors attached to the baby’s body to check their heart rate, breathing rate and oxygen level in their blood.

Contact with your baby

Parents are usually welcome in the NICU 24 hours a day, but other visitors may be limited. Remember, it can be very dangerous for babies in the NICU if they catch an infection. So, if you or anyone else has been ill, they should talk to the medical staff first, or stay away.

Bonding with your baby and helping to care for them will help them get well. Medical staff will include you in everything that is done for your baby and will teach you how to look after them, including how to change nappies, take the baby’s temperature, and bath, 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 beneficial both for parents and babies. For example, it helps to regulate the baby’s body temperature, heart rate and breathing rate, helps them gain weight, and can improve your breast milk production.

Kangaroo care is not suitable for all babies, so ask the medical staff. Even if your baby is not stable enough for kangaroo care, you can still comfort them by stroking them, letting them grasp your finger, or by talking and singing to them.

Feeding your baby

Many babies in the NICU may not be able to breastfeed at first. They are fed through a tube in their nose that carries the milk straight to their stomach (called ‘gavage feeding’).

You may be asked to express breast milk that can be frozen and used later. Expressing milk will keep up your milk supply. If you do not want to breastfeed or don’t produce enough milk, the staff will discuss formula feeding with you.

Dealing with your feelings

Having a baby in the NICU can be an emotional experience. Some parents find it hard to deal 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 are often worried that they won’t be able to bond with their baby. But the baby will be comforted by your touch and smell.

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. It can also help to read to your baby, keep mementos, take photos, and make sure you eat well and get enough sleep.

If you have a baby in a NICU or need support, call our Care Managers on 0809-059-9995 or send an email to