At first, many parents feel helpless, and that their role as a parent is being sidelined. You may feel that you have nothing to contribute, and that the doctors and nurses have taken charge. You may feel deprived of the experience of parenting, but this is only at first, when medical care is priority. Soon, your contribution will be a huge part of your baby’s development. The staff are there to care for your baby, but also to support you to become your baby’s carer. Your opinions are important and you play a vital role in the care of your baby
Nobody can nurture your baby like you can.
It is important to keep in close contact with the nurses and doctors, who are happy for you to be involved in your baby’s care. Your baby needs to know you are there, and will be comforted by your visits. It is good to spend time looking and talking to your baby. As soon as your baby is strong enough, you will get the chance to be more hands-on with your baby’s care, such as changing nappies and feeding.
This will help you and your baby to get to know each other, and to build your confidence. No matter how sick your baby is, you should not be afraid to be close to them. The nurses will show you how to manage everyday tasks, which they might refer to as your baby’s daily ‘cares’. At first, you may find it difficult, but practise makes perfect.
This is a relatively easy task, and one that can be done by a parent from an early stage of their baby’s development. You should clean your baby’s mouth when they are awake and comfortable; before a feed may be a good time. Breast milk, or sterile water, on a cotton bud is used to clean a baby’s lips and mouth. Breast milk is best because it has anti-bacterial properties. It also gives your baby a taste of your breast milk, providing them with a cue that a feed is on the way.
Gently “press and scoop” the cotton bud on your baby’s lips. If your baby has a tube feed in situ, a cotton bud can be used to wipe around the tube in the mouth, where perhaps there will be some fatty deposits which can be used to moisturise their lips.
You can learn how to change your baby’s nappy by observing the nurse. All the tubes and wires may appear daunting at first, so it is a good idea to learn the task of changing their nappy one step at a time.
To begin with, take over from the nurse at the end of the nappy change, i.e. first learn how to finish off the nappy change (fixing the nappy in place) and settling your baby afterwards. As your confidence grows, you can gradually learn each preceeding step until you are confident in doing the entire nappy change. If you are changing the nappy through the portholes of an incubator, it can be helpful to get assistance from another person. The second person can be responsible for watching your baby for any signs of discomfort.
If your baby becomes uncomfortable, active, or unstable during the nappy change, pause for a moment and rest your hand over their body until they quieten and relax again. If you feel afraid or uncomfortable at first when changing your baby’s nappy, you can be involved by comfort holding your baby while the nurse changes their nappy.
Nurses tend to advise against washing your baby as it may bring down their body temperature; this should be avoided in premature babies. The little flakes of dried-on blood and waxy ‘vernix’ (the white substance that coats the skin of new-born babies) will do no harm, and are best left where they are. In the interest of infection control, it is policy that babies are not bathed during their stay in the neonatal unit.
You will get a demonstration on bathing preparation and bathing your baby before your baby is discharged from the neonatal unit. Some very small babies find their first bath less stressful if they are wrapped or swaddled during it. It can be daunting at first, but with some practice you’ll grow to love the experience.
This is an essential part of caring for your baby. Babies that are not strong enough to breastfeed or to take a bottle will require feeding through a feeding tube. Your nurse will carry out this task initially.
When your baby is thought to be stable, you can help with this task under the supervision of your baby’s nurse. Tube feeding your baby can be done when they are in their incubator, or during kangaroo care. When your baby is strong enough to be transferred to a cot, they may show increased interest in sucking and may wake at feed times. You can use this opportunity to place your baby at your breast or to offer a bottle.
As your baby prepares for home, you should try to be present for as many feeds and as much hands-on care as possible. Make plans to room-in overnight: this will make you more confident in your ability to care for your baby when they are discharged.