Babies born before 37 weeks gestation are considered premature, and they’re affectionately known as “preemies.” Preemies can have serious health issues, including low birth weight, jaundice, breathing problems and blindness. The good news is that neonatal intensive care units (NICUs) are well-equipped to handle the special medical needs of your baby.
Typically, premature babies need to meet certain important milestones before they’re allowed to go home. If your baby is stable and can maintain his or her body temperature in an open crib for 24 to 48 hours, is fed entirely by bottle or breast with no tube feedings, and demonstrates steady weight gain, your doctors might be ready to send him or her home.
It can be nerve-wracking to take your extra-tiny bundle of joy for his or her first car ride, but remember that the NICU staff would not release your baby from care unless they believe it is safe.
A Home and Haven
Many premature babies do not need extra medical care once they leave the hospital—just the routine immunizations and well-visits any infant would need.
However, some premature infants need extra monitoring at home. Your physician may give you an apnea monitor that measures any pauses in breathing, or could provide supplemental oxygen to help cope with scarring in the lungs. While premature babies need plenty of food to continue growing, feeding them too fast can overwhelm their immature intestines. Your physician will give you a feeding plan that meets your infant’s needs.
Because preemies are especially vulnerable to infection, make sure everyone who comes into contact with the baby is up-to-date on their vaccinations, including the pertussis (whooping cough) vaccine. For certain babies and families, preventive medicine for respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) may be needed. RSV looks like a cold or flu in older kids and adults, but can be deadly for premature infants.
Caring for Yourself
If you have a premature infant, you’ve probably spent long hours in the NICU and experienced a great deal of stress. Remember to care for yourself following a premature birth—your sleep, food and exercise needs do not go away while you care for your child. Ask for help from friends, neighbors and loved ones. Trying to do it all yourself can be unsustainable.
Mothers of premature infants, like all new moms, are susceptible to baby blues or postpartum depression. If you feel like something isn’t right, talk to your physician. Help is available to get you feeling normal.
3 Things to Know About the NICU
The neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) is where premature infants are cared for until they are stable enough to leave the hospital. Find out about the important work of this hospital unit:
- Many nurses, physicians and specialists are available to take care of your infant. From neonatologists to nutritionists to social workers and chaplains, you have a team of people on call. NICU staff members are specially trained to care for premature infants, and they have experience dealing with many situations.
- Specialized equipment is used to keep your baby healthy. Feeding tubes help NICU babies get more calories than bottle feeding. Intravenous catheters (IVs) and central lines are placed to give your baby any needed medications. Infant warmers (beds with heaters over them) and isolettes (beds enclosed by hard plastic) keep babies at the right temperature. Ventilators are used to improve breathing, and light therapy (either lights attached to a bed or using a special blanket) treats jaundice.
- There are many important things parents can do to bond with their baby in the NICU. Talk with your physician and nurses about how much touch is best for your baby. It may be too stressful for some babies—particularly those that are very premature. However, in many cases, talking and spending time with your baby can help you bond. As your baby grows, gentle, consistent cuddling can feel good to babies and parents. Physical touch has been shown to improve recovery in the NICU—kangaroo care (resting your baby against your bare chest), in particular, is comforting.