NICU 101

If your newborn has serious health problems, they may require care in a Neonatal Intensive Care Unit, or NICU (often pronounced Nik-yoo). Approximately 10 to 15 percent of babies born in the United States will spend time in the NICU, often due to premature birth, infections, or other complications. Depending on a baby’s condition, their time in NICU could last days, weeks or even months.

In Michigan, there is only one NICU north of Grand Rapids, at Munson Medical Center in Traverse City so babies born at other northern Michigan hospitals who require specialized care are often transferred to the NICU in Traverse City. Babies who require very specialized care may be transferred downstate.

Most parents who arrive in the NICU never expected to be there. After months of planning and dreaming about labor, delivery and going home with a new baby, it can be very disorienting to suddenly find yourself in a NICU and your life on pause.

Here are 10 pieces of advice and information that you’ll find helpful if your baby needs to spend time in the NICU.


1. It is normal to experience a wide range of strong emotions.
  • sadness that this milestone did not go as planned
  • fear for your newborn’s health
  • anger at the health care providers who have “taken over”
  • guilt or a feeling that you may have caused the health problem
  • powerlessness as you look at the bewildering maze of monitors in the NICU

Notice your feelings. Don’t bottle them up and don’t feel guilty for having them. These are common for anyone who has spent time in the NICU. Share them with your spouse or partner, or even with your health care providers.

2. Don’t be afraid of your baby.

It’s intimidating to see your baby surrounded by medical equipment and personnel. Monitors, wires, feeding tubes and IVs are all common sights in the NICU. Depending on your newborn’s condition, you may or may not be able to hold your baby – but you can start bonding. Talk to your nurses. Ask them how you can start interacting with your baby. They will help you hold your newborn or show you the best way to let her know you’re there for her.

3. Get to know your baby’s health care providers.

You’re going to be seeing a lot of these people in the coming days or weeks. Introduce yourself. Remember their names. You should know that NICU Nurses are steadfast protectors of your baby: they will lay out the “ground rules” for spending time with your baby and remind you to wash your hands – a lot. They may come across as strict, but that is only because they understand that NICU babies need extraordinary levels of care and precaution. They are looking out for your child’s needs so listen to your nurses and don’t be afraid to ask them questions.

4. Learn the NICU “House Rules.”

The NICU is a home away from home for you and other families. The NICU rules and guidelines are there to keep everyone safe and comfortable. Also remember that the NICU is a very intimate environment. Even as your child becomes healthy enough to leave, you will see new families arrive who are just as shocked to be there as you were when you arrived. Be considerate, quiet and respect what the other families are going through.

5. Take Care of Yourself.

When you first arrive in the NICU, it is difficult to imagine stepping away, even for a minute. You may feel like you need to stay by your baby’s side 24 hours a day – but this will only result in your exhaustion. Think of your time in the NICU as a marathon – not a sprint. You’ll need to pace yourself and conserve energy to be at your best in the days and weeks to come. If you live nearby, it’s ok to go home and shower. Sleep in your own bed. Get rest. (If you live outside the area, see tip number 10.) Your baby will be cared for throughout the night. It can feel strange to give this responsibility over to someone else – after all, you were supposed to be the one getting up with your baby all night long – but you will take over this responsibility soon enough. Your baby won’t remember that someone else fed them for those first nights. The important thing is that your baby is in the safest place possible.

When you are focused on your baby’s needs you may also forget to eat. This is especially important if you are beginning to pump. Pack healthy snacks. Munson Medical Center also has cafeteria onsite with many healthy and affordable options. There are also numerous other options (restaurants and grocery stores) within a short driving distance of Munson Medical Center.

Lastly, staying active can also help you deal with your stress and burn off steam. Take a walk around the hospital or around the trails at the Grand Traverse Commons when your baby is sleeping.

6. Take care of your family.

If you have other children, remember that this will be a tough time for them too. This experience is not what they were expecting either, and they may feel forgotten as you “disappear” into the NICU every day. Talk to them. Dads can play a huge role during this time in holding down the fort at home and caring for older children. Make them feel important and remembered; their lives are in a state of upheaval too. It is also important to be open and honest. Invite their questions and answer them as directly as possible in terms they will understand. Don’t make promises about outcomes that you can’t guarantee. Lastly, help them meet their new sibling. Supervised children are welcome to visit the NICU, but they do not do well with long stays. You can also reach out to relatives and trusted friends to help care for other siblings. [What if there is no support system? No Dad. No Relatives?]

7. Start Pumping.

If you plan to breastfeed you’ll need to start pumping and storing milk at the NICU. Talk to the lactation consultant about getting a pump and where to store your milk. The NICU has privacy screens to allow for pumping or breastfeeding. The NICU should supply storage bottles with labels for your child. Keep your pumping schedule regular to ensure a healthy milk supply when your baby is able to nurse. If your baby is able, you can breastfeed in the NICU though there may be unique challenges; ask for a lactation specialist if you are having difficulties getting started with breastfeeding.

8. Accept Help. Ask for Help.

Few experiences in life will challenge you like a long stay in the NICU. Family and friends will come out of the woodwork to help you. Accept the help you are given, and if you have specific needs, ask for help. Your friends and family will be glad to give it. You would do the same for them – and you might someday – so don’t be shy.

9. Find a way to occupy your mind.

The NICU is boring. Newborns sleep most of the time so you will find yourself with a lot of time on your hands. Don’t feel like you have to focus 100% of your attention on your sleeping baby. Spend time or interact you’re your other children. Find a good book or write in a journal. Meet a friend for lunch. You’ll still be a good parent!

10. Take advantage of Munson Manor.

If you are traveling to Traverse City from a distance, housing can be a problem, especially if you are expecting a long-term stay in the NICU. Munson Healthcare offers low-cost rooms for families who need to stay in town to be with a loved one. Munson Manor is just steps away from Munson Medical Center and has simple, clean rooms and a quiet atmosphere. Many NICU families take advantage of this service.

Life After NICU

Spending the first days and weeks of your baby’s life in the NICU is a stressful way to welcome your child into the world. When you finally take your baby home, you will probably feel a great weight lifted from your shoulders, as you get on with “normal” life. Sometimes, however, it is difficult to leave all the stress, anxiety and guilt behind. After days, weeks or months on high-alert, you may find yourself to be hyper-vigilant. Or you may want to “over-parent” to make up for the time that you missed with your baby. Your experience may contribute to post-partum depression or anxiety. If you find yourself struggling emotionally, talk with your Healthy Futures Nurse or seek out a mental health professional who specializes in working with new mothers.