Delivering a premature baby is a very difficult time for you and your family. Your baby may be facing many complications, depending on how many weeks along he/she was before delivery. Your baby could be spending days, weeks, or even months in the NICU. However, there are many things you can do to help your baby's health, prevent complications, and bring your baby home earlier.
Bonding with your Premature Baby
Many parents resist bonding with their baby while he/she is in the NICU. It's not that they don't love their baby, they simply feel it will hurt less if the baby dies and they haven't bonded with him/her. However, this is the worst thing you can do. Premature babies that are loved by their parents, held skin-to-skin, and fed breast milk do better than other babies. Look at your baby, sing to him/her, and hold him/her for as long as you can. It may take a little more effort, but babies that have bonded have a higher chance for survival and experience fewer complications due to prematurity.
There have been many recent studies about the benefits of kangaroo care and premature babies. It was discovered two decades ago in facilities with no neonatal technology that babies who were held by their mothers in skin-to-skin contact had a substantially higher survival rate.
Babies held skin-to-skin hear the heartbeat they heard in the womb. They are able to conserve energy to grow and stay warm. In addition, babies who are snuggled against a loving family member's chest gain weight faster and go home earlier. Skin-to-skin contact helps mothers produce more milk, reduces stress levels, and facilitates the bonding process.
Mothers are not the only ones that can do kangaroo care. Fathers, grandparents, aunts, uncles, and teenage siblings can also help if the mother is sick or if there are multiples who need the extra attention.
Here are some tips for kangaroo care:
- Make sure the environment is warm. If it seems your baby is getting cold, place a preheated blanket over you and your baby.
- Use the restroom and get something to eat before sitting down. You should not move for as long as possible. An upcoming article in Pediatrics shows that kangaroo care is best if you can stay seated for three or more hours.
- Bring along a water bottle and sip while you hold your baby so you stay hydrated.
Breast milk is important for babies, but it is vital for premature babies. Breast milk produced by women with preemies has more protein, fat, sodium, iron, chloride, and other essential nutrients. Statistically, babies who do not get breast milk have a higher incidence of sepsis. Sepsis is a blood infection and a leading cause of death among premature babies. Nursing is also associated with shorter hospital stays, fewer complications, and higher survival rates.
Many preemies are too young to successfully breastfeed. Some babies are so sick that they need to be fed through a tube. Others find it easier to suck on a bottle than learn breastfeeding. However, you can still pump to get breast milk to feed your baby. Your NICU nurse will help you with the procedure to make sure your baby gets your breast milk. Pump frequently (every 2-3 hours) to establish your milk supply, especially if your baby is too sick to attempt breastfeeding. After your milk supply is established, you will find it takes less time to produce enough breast milk. You may be able to pump while visiting your baby at the hospital, maybe when he/she is having a procedure done or sleeping in an incubator. If pumping is out of the question or you are having difficulty establishing a milk supply, you may want to contact a breast milk bank.
Attempt to breastfeed your baby in the NICU, even if it's only for five to ten minutes and you have to work to keep your baby awake. This can help your baby learn to breastfeed and increase your milk supply.
When you go home, make sure you know how to breastfeed your baby. Learn breastfeeding positions from your NICU nurses. Contact a La Leche League representative or a lactation consultant for help. Even though your baby is out of the NICU, it is still important for your baby to get breast milk.
What Else Can I Do?
- Learn everything you can about the NICU and equipment.
- Ask questions about equipment, health issues, medications, and complications your baby may be facing.
- Make sure you understand what the nurses and doctors are telling you.
- Learn the names of your baby's nurses and doctors.
- Learn your baby's feeding schedule.
- Visit your baby, even if he/she is too sick to hold.
- Talk and sing to your baby.
- If possible, have older siblings meet their brother or sister.
- Ask for help from your friends and family with food, chores, and caring for your other children.