Why sick or premature babies feel stressed in the NICU
Sick or premature babies can experience different kinds of stress in the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU).
They can have stress and pain from having heel pricks, being ventilated, having tubes inserted into their veins or even just being washed.
Living in a noisy and bright environment and having people coming and going all the time is also very uncomfortable for sick or premature babies. This is because they’re used to being in the womb where it’s warm and dark, and sounds are muted.
By watching how your baby behaves and responds to their environment, you can learn to read your baby’s body language. This will help you tell when your baby is feeling stressed or uncomfortable.
Signs of stress in sick or premature babies in the NICU
Your sick or premature baby’s nurse is always watching for signs of stress and discomfort in your baby.
These signs might be changes in your baby’s heartbeat, breathing or blood pressure. Signs also include changes in your baby’s behaviour. For example, your baby might be making jerky movements or crying.
The nurse manages your baby’s pain by giving them medications or sugar water, or by changing their environment. For example, the nurse might give your baby a dummy, wrap or unwrap your baby, or turn down the lights.
Calming sick or premature babies in the NICU: what you can do
If your sick or premature baby is in an incubator and you see signs that they’re upset, you can help them stay relaxed and calm. The key is to watch your baby’s reactions.
If what you do seems to calm your baby, keep doing it. If it doesn’t, stop.
Here are ways to help your baby feel calm:
- Give your baby a dummy to suck – you can use a dummy even if your baby is ventilated.
- Position or nest your baby so that they can’t jerk around too much but can still suck their fingers.
- Wrap your baby.
- Gently touch your baby by putting your hands on their head and bottom.
- Stop or slow your touch, quieten your voice, dim the lights or make things quieter if your baby seems overwhelmed.
- Gently talk, read or sing to your baby – babies can recognise their parents’ voices.
- Give your baby kangaroo care, if the hospital staff say your baby is ready. Even ‘medically unstable’ babies can be more stable while receiving kangaroo care.
If you’re handling your baby, they might feel stressed because of the handling. You can help them relax and feel calm by stopping handling them or slowing down what you’re doing.
Hearing parents’ voices can improve a sick or premature baby’s feeding, lower their heart rate, improve the oxygen level in their blood, and produce a calm, alert state, even if their hearing is still developing.
Working with NICU staff
It’s a good idea to ask the NICU staff about the NICU policy on minimising stress, pain and disruption for sick or premature babies. The policy will say what staff can do to keep your baby’s world as gentle as possible. It might be things like reducing noise and light, giving pain relief or organising your baby’s care to fit in with their sleep.
It’s OK to advocate for your baby if you notice something that doesn’t seem right or if you think that your baby is in pain. For example, if you notice that your baby’s environment is too bright or too noisy, you can ask the staff whether they could dim the lights or make the NICU less noisy.
The goal is for you to work together with the nursing and medical staff as a team looking after your baby. Being respectful and open with one another works best.
It’s also important to look after yourself, because your baby can pick up on your stress. Our articles on coping with the NICU experience and understanding your feelings about premature birth have tips for making things easier for yourself.