Neonatal Intensive Care Unit: What you need to know

Visiting your baby

When you have a baby in the NICU you are encouraged to be with your baby as often as is possible. Because I had a long distance to travel to the hospital each day, I would arrive early in the morning and remain with Amelia until 9pm when my husband would visit our daughter after a days work. Generally there are no visiting hours in the NICU however some units may request that you leave the unit for short periods of time ie during daily ward rounds (although many units are now encouraging parents to remain present for rounds), when there is a medical emergency, the admission of an new baby or when there is complicated procedure being performed and during staff shift change.

When your baby is admitted to the NICU you will be provided with an Information Booklet which will outline the protocols of the NICU including times when parents are asked to step out of the NICU, whether personal bedding and clothing are allowed and if photographs and personal items are permitted in the incubator or cot.

To respect the privacy of the patients, you will be asked to remain at your baby’s incubator or cot and to refrain from enquiring about other baby’s on the unit. Your baby’s immune system will be immature and for this reason siblings and relatives are not permitted to visit the units.

Hand hygiene

One of my abiding memories of my first day on the NICU was being taught how to wash my hands. Until that moment I had never given much thought to this everyday task. I soon realised the importance of keeping the baby’s on the NICU free from infection and that proper hand washing played a vital role.  See the images below for details on how to wash your hands.

I was told to sing the “Happy Birthday” song in my head twice whilst washing my hands and this would equate to adequate hand washing time. The families who had been on the NICU for months were the ones that would be humming or singing aloud at the sinks and it always brought a smile to my face.

Infection control

Immature immune systems make premature baby’s more vulnerable to infection. Alcohol gels and hand sanitisers are located all around the hospital and on the NICU. It is very important to ensure that you use the gels/sanitisers before entering the NICU and before touching your baby as this will reduce the chances of your baby contracting an infection.  To reduce the sensory experience (the smell and feeling of the product) for your baby you should allow the gels/sanitisers to dry into your skin before touching your baby.

Remember do not visit the unit if you have been exposed to a contagious disease ie chicken pox, German measles, tuberculosis  or if you have a cold, fever or are ill in any way. If you or your family members are ill or have been exposed to a contagious disease and you are unsure whether you should visit the NICU, ring the NICU and ask for their advice and guidance.


Siblings are not permitted onto the neonatal units however there are a number of ways for you to ensure that the siblings are kept informed:

  • Take photographs or show them a video
  • Explain why the new baby needs to stay in hospital
  • Allow them to discuss their concerns and ask questions
  • Encourage them to make drawings that can be attached to the incubator
  • Encourage the them to send a photograph of themselves into the unit
  • Involve the them in the planning for the baby’s homecoming

Quiet time

Whilst your baby is in your womb he/she sleeps 80% of the time and for specific periods each day, the units have a ‘Quiet Time”, the aim of which is to give the babies an opportunity to rest and sleep. Light intensity and noise levels are reduced and medical procedures are kept to a minimum.

Look after yourself 

You are the most important person in your baby’s world and ensuring that you take care of yourself whilst your baby is on the NICU is equally as important as the medical care that your baby is receiving.  Here are some tips to help you navigate the days, weeks or months in the NICU.

  • Acknowledge and talk about your feelings
  • Ask the staff about your baby’s medical condition
  • Visit your infant as much as possible
  • Take photographs and make videos
  • Become actively involved in your infant’s daily cares
  • Ensure that you spend time with your family at home
  • Accept help from friends and family
  • Ask for meals to be cooked for you and your family, ask for help with childcare, transport, housework, school-runs etc.
  • Eat proper meals and increase your fluid intake
  • Share your feelings with the staff (or ask to see the hospital counsellor)
  • Talk to other parents on the unit
  • Talk to the unit Social Worker

Things you may need to bring to the NICU

  • Notebook and pens
  • Camera
  • Scarf or muslin square that has been worn by you to leave with your baby
  • Blanket/Kangaroo Mother Care sweater to keep your baby warm during kangaroo care
  • Loose clothing with front opening is helpful for kangaroo care
  • Hand mirror to help you see your baby’s face during kangaroo care
  • Pictures of your other children
  • Cool Bag for transporting milk to the hospital
  • Diary/Journal

The time you spend with your baby in the NICU is so precious but can put a strain on your family so do look after yourself and don’t be afraid to accept help from friends and family at this time.

If you would like more information on premature baby’s please visit The Irish Neonatal Health Alliance  –