The first time you enter the neonatal unit can be very scary - the sounds, the machines, the monitors and wires - it can all seem very surreal.

The Neonatal Unit – What to Expect

Every neonatal ward is different but all have open access to parents and you will be encouraged to spend as much time as possible with your baby, day or night, although it is important parents get some rest too. Siblings are also welcome and encouraged to visit as much as possible, providing they are well. You will be issued with an admission pack on arrival to the unit. If you are in one of the units we support, you will receive a Spoons welcome pack which contains some practical items and information about the unit and Spoons support.

Our family support team are available to help you and your family navigate your neonatal journey

Neonatal Intensive Care Unit - NICU

It is a good idea to familiarise yourself with your new surroundings, find the family sitting room, the place to store your belongings, breastfeeding rooms and canteen. You will be expected to wash your hands and remove your outdoor coats before going into the rooms where babies are cared for. There are hand washing facilities in all the rooms and sanitisers positioned around the unit. Your hands can become quite sore from the harsh cleaning, so it’s worth investing in some good hand cream. Ask about the practical things – is there free parking at the hospital and if so find out how you get a permit.

It is a lot to take in initially. If your baby is in neonatal intensive care, the likelihood is there will be lots of wires, monitors and machines. You might also start to hear lots of terminology that you don’t understand. Ask the nurse looking after your baby to explain what the wires, monitors and machines do. You may not take it all in straight away, but you will soon become familiar with what everything does; it then becomes a lot less scary. Ask lots of questions – the doctors and nurses will be more than happy to explain anything you don’t understand. Remember, this is your baby and you are a key member of the team caring for them.

If mums are well enough after birth they may be asked to express breast milk, even if their baby has been born very prematurely. This can seem quite daunting, if not a little unnatural and undignified at first. The infant feeding team or midwives are there to support you with this.

Take as many photographs and videos as you can. It is surprising how quickly you forget things. We also recommend you keep a diary to log your baby’s journey and also your thoughts and feelings. It can really help to look back on how far you have all come on your journey, especially if you are having a bad day.

Parents thoughts and feelings on NICU

Always remember, however you feel when you first see your baby on the neonatal unit, it is completely normal. Each experience is different and how each mum and dad will feel will be different too.

New mums on the unit often feel guilt when they first see their baby. They feel guilty that they couldn’t keep their little one in the womb for longer, and they may overplay every part of their pregnancy to find something which could have caused this. Many mums will grieve for their pregnancy, grieve for the birth they had planned, and grieve for all the things new mums expect to do. Your baby may be too unstable for you to cuddle them. This can be very tough and as a result it can feel hard to bond with your baby. Ask the nurses about positive touch and comfort holding. These are a good way to for you and baby to feel close to each other. You may feel scared of getting too attached to your baby in case something terrible happens, and lots of parents on the unit can relate to this. The staff may tell you to talk to your baby, as they will recognise your voice. This can feel strange, especially with so many people around. Reading is a good way around this – your baby will love hearing your voice and you may feel more comfortable reading to them.

Dads often feel they must be the strong one, the one to care for the mum, and be strong for their baby. They may feel like they have to carry on with normal life, when inside they are falling apart. A lot of the focus is on mum as she carried the baby, but we know how hard it is for dads too. We know how terrifying it must be for a dad to watch his partner go through a very traumatic labour, sometimes not knowing what the outcome might be. It is very hard to watch your baby being whisked away to the neonatal unit and there is absolutely nothing you can do about it. We understand the strength it takes in those moments to hold it together and tell your partner it will be OK. Some men say it helped to do the practical things like register the baby’s birth or sort out the parking permit. If it helps you cope, then do it. Men typically don’t talk openly about their feelings, and we know this can often lead to mental health problems later down the line. As a man, you might find your friends and family don’t fully understand how you feel and you may feel uncomfortable opening up to them. We know that dads who have talked to other dads about their experiences, thoughts and feelings find everything easier. It really does help to talk. Talk to other dads on the unit and tap into any support that is available. It is OK not to be OK.

Some parents can’t help but feel bitter when they see other families going home, especially when they have an older baby who is a long way from being discharged. At the same time, those families who have only been on the unit a short time can feel they have no place to be upset. The phrase ‘I know there are much sicker babies than ours’ is all too common. One day in neonatal care is one day too long – you are entitled to feel angry, sad, and frustrated, regardless of why your baby is on the unit or for how long.

Our family support team are available to help you and your family navigate your neonatal journey