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Neonatal intensive care and special baby care units

Some babies will need extra care after birth. This might be in a neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) or a special baby care unit (SBCU).

Sometimes a baby will be transferred to another hospital. This can be a worrying and confusing time for parents. Transfers are usually carried out by a specialist team from the National Neonatal Transport Programme.

If your baby arrives too soon, you may feel unprepared. This can be a very emotional time for you and your partner. Specialist staff in the unit are there to care for your baby and to help you in caring for your baby.

Why some babies need extra care

Some of the reasons a baby may need extra care include:

  • premature birth
  • low birth weight
  • infection
  • jaundice
  • the mother has medical problems such as diabetes
  • difficult delivery
  • they are waiting for surgery in a children's hospital

Inside the unit

Babies who are very small are nursed in incubators instead of cots. This helps them keep warm.

Staff will organise your baby's care to make sure your baby has rest and quiet time. During your visits you can help your baby’s development by talking to them.

All staff and parents are expected to wash their hands before touching a baby in the unit. This is important to prevent the spread of infection.

The NICU and SBCU is full of equipment. This can be quite daunting for parents. Do not let it stop you from touching and interacting with your baby. Staff will help you with this and explain what the equipment is for.

Benefits of contact with your baby

Your baby will benefit from hearing your voice and from contact with you. Always wash your hands before touching your baby.

Your baby may be in an incubator and may be on a breathing machine. There may also be tubes and wires attached to your baby. Ask the nurse or midwife to explain what everything is for. They are there to support and help you. When your baby is well enough, ask the staff to help you do skin-to-skin contact.

Feeding a premature or ill baby

When your baby is in the NICU or SBCU, you may feel anxious and helpless. A positive way in which you can contribute to your baby’s recovery is by breastfeeding. If your baby is too unwell to breastfeed, you can express your milk. The staff in the unit will help you with this.

How to express breast milk

The milk you produce is full of antibodies that help fight infection. The first milk you produce is colostrum (liquid gold). Every drop is of benefit to your baby.

The best way to collect colostrum is by hand expression. Your nurse or midwife will help you. Express while looking at your baby, or a photo of your baby, or immediately after spending time with them.

A special feeding tube will feed your baby colostrum. When your baby is strong enough you can breastfeed or bottle-feed them expressed milk.

Understanding your baby's treatment

For a period of time, the ward becomes the centre of your universe. Talk to staff and find out who will be caring for your baby.

It is important you understand as much as possible about the treatment your baby is being given. This means you can work with hospital staff to make sure your baby gets the best care. Some treatments will need your consent.

Staff may have to act quickly in an emergency situation. This means you may not be contacted before a procedure.

How premature birth affects parents

Page last reviewed: 15 September 2022
Next review due: 15 September 2025