1. the state or condition of being aware; having knowledge; consciousness:
September is NICU Awareness Month. So, what does that mean? Well, Awareness is about having knowledge and consciousness. Most people, who have not had an experience in the NICU, don’t think of it, and many don’t know exactly what it is or what it’s for. This becomes extremely apparent when you have a baby in the NICU and you start getting questions non-stop. Usually from well-meaning friends and family who want to be able to understand. Unfortunately, when you are in the throws of a NICU stay, you don’t necessarily want to take the time to educate. Or, you may just be learning yourself.
So, what is the NICU? What goes on there? Who is admitted? Why are they admitted? How long do babies stay? What are the requirements to be able to go home? How many nurses are there? How often can parents be there? What are the rules on visitors? For someone who knows nothing about the NICU, there are countless questions to be answered. I was that person when I was admitted to the hospital for bedrest, knowing my daughter would be early and if she survived would be in the NICU.
After being there for three months, I am able to answer many of these questions and more. So I have compiled this NICU FAQ list for new NICU parents, family and friends.
What does N.I.C.U stand for?
Neonatal Intensive Care Unit.
What is the NICU for?
The NICU is where newborns go. It’s really that simple. Any problem with a newborn that needs to be addressed by the doctors or nurses, that can not be solved in the delivery room, means a trip to the NICU.
How long do babies stay in the NICU?
That is completely dependent on the issue at hand. Some babies just need to go for a few hours for observation, some stay months. I have read of babies being there for a year or more, although that long is quite rare.
When can a baby go home from the NICU?
This question has no definite answer. It varies from baby to baby and can vary by day for an individual baby. A full-term baby may only need to be there for an evaluation, or to correct their bilirubin levels because they are jaundiced. Once their bilirubin is good, they can go home.A baby who needs surgery may be there longer to make sure they recover well.A premature baby who was born at 34 weeks and has no apparent issues may be able to go home once they are showing the ability to breathe and eat without problem A micro-preemie (born before 27 weeks gestation) may be there for months, dependent on their weight, how much they can eat, surgeries, complications, their ability to breathe or regulate their own body temperature, or any number of other issues and requirements.
Every baby has their own path, and there is not a one size fits all answer. Many times parents don’t know when their baby is able to go home until just a few days before.
How often can parents be there?
NICUs will rarely have restriction on when parents can be there. The only type of restriction I came across was “lockdown” hours. If you were in before a certain time you could stay, but no one could enter after that time. Then in the morning it would open up again. This was to make sure it stayed calm through the night. Outside of rules of that nature, parents can be there at all times. (This may be dependent on your NICU, and you should check with the nurses to verify the specific rules.)
What are the rules for other visitors?
This is very location-specific. We were in two different NICUs. At one, anyone who had a family badge could bring a guest or two as long as it was within normal visiting hours. We received 3 badges, and could give them out as we wanted, but they each needed to be registered to a specific person. At our second NICU, only parents, siblings or grandparents could go in and it could only be two visitors at a time. So, make sure to check with the NICU. If you are friend or family of the parents, check with the parents and be respectful of whatever their wishes are. I personally didn’t want anyone outside of close family visiting, even when we could have others, because of the risk of germs and infections.
What exactly is the setup with nurses?
So, one of the things that I needed to fully understand before I was comfortable was the way nurses work in the NICU. Having just been in the antepartum unit for a month, I knew there had to be something different in the NICU, or I would have to be there 24/7.
In an adult unit, you are of course treated as an adult. In the antepartum unit specifically, I was only checked on if I called for help or if there was an alarm, but even then I had to call sometimes. I was basically on my own because I was there just in case something happened.
In the NICU, every alarm is responded to. Whichever nurse is assigned to your baby will only have your child and maybe one other. (Ratios vary depending on the hospital) So, your child is getting constant care and attention.
Does my baby have the same nurse every day?
The first NICU we were in had the option of a “care team”, which basically meant, a nurse could request to be primarily on your child’s case. I loved this set up. Parents could approve or deny the requests, so if you really didn’t like a nurse for some reason, you weren’t stuck with them. However, what I liked best about this setup, was knowing that the nurse who was taking care of my baby loved her enough to be her primary care giver, to help her and check up on her. You feel much more confident leaving your child when you know the person taking care of them truly cares for them. I also liked that it gave me a chance to get to know her nurses. If no nurse was on your child’s care team though, the nurses who didn’t have a specific baby rotated.
The second hospital we were at just rotated nurses every shift. I was not a big fan of this system as no one really got to know us or our case, and we were there for two months. They still had one nurse per two babies, so at least I knew she was still getting focused and individualized care.
Everyone has different questions
when it comes to the NICU, what questions do you have? This is a basic overview, but there is a lot to know. Leave your questions in the comments and I will pick a few to answer in a future update of this article!
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For help with different terms used in the NICU, check out: Six NICU Terms Every Preemie Parent Should Know
Friend or Family of NICU parents? Here’s how to help: 7 Ways to Help The Family of a Preterm Baby