Special care nursery: the basics

A special care nursery has specialist doctors, nurses, other professionals and equipment to care for premature babies. But babies in the special care nursery are healthier and stronger than babies in a neonatal intensive care unit (NICU).

If your baby is ready to go to the special care nursery, this means that medical staff are confident that she can keep up her own body temperature and breathe either by herself or with less help.

Some premature babies who need less intensive care go straight to a special care nursery after birth, instead of a NICU.

What to expect in the special care nursery

In a special care nursery, neonatologists – doctors who are specialists in newborn or neonatal care – care for your baby. Your baby will see other medical specialists if he needs them.

Nurses monitor your baby but less often than in the NICU. Each nurse in the special care nursery looks after several babies.

If your baby has come from the NICU, she’ll probably no longer need most of the medical equipment that was used to care for her there.

In the special care nursery, you can start doing more things for your baby. You can cuddle him for much longer and take over some of his cares, like nappy changes. Your baby might also start to breastfeed at your breast, rather than having your breastmilk through a tube.

When your baby is big enough, she can come out of the incubator and sleep in an open cot where you can touch her more easily.

You might have felt at home and familiar with the staff and routines in the NICU. Getting to know the staff in the special care nursery will help you to feel at home there too. One way to get to know them is by being there during ward rounds, talking to staff about your baby’s progress, and sharing what you’ve learned about your baby’s likes and dislikes.

Moving to a special care nursery in a different hospital

Hospitals with NICUs tend to be located in large cities. You might have gone to a hospital in a large city to give birth, or your baby might have been transferred after he was born.

If you live a long way from the hospital with the NICU that has been looking after your baby, it’s likely that she’ll be moved to a special care nursery in a hospital closer to home.

Your baby might be transported in a specially equipped ambulance, with an incubator and the technology that he needs for the trip. Sometimes babies who are close to going home can be transported in a taxi with a nurse escort.

Getting used to the special care nursery

You might have mixed feelings about your baby’s move to the special care nursery.

You might feel excited that your baby is getting closer to coming home. It’s also normal to feel anxious about being more responsible for your baby’s care, or worried that she’ll be getting less individualised specialist care from the nurses.

The medical and nursing staff in the special care nursery are highly qualified and experienced in looking after sick and premature babies. They’ll be able to help you learn about being a hands-on parent, including feeding and bathing your baby. Just ask them for help and advice if you need it. You can also talk to them about your fears or worries.

The new nursery might have different guidelines and policies from the NICU, even if it’s in the same hospital. You can still expect family-centred care just like in the NICU, and to be treated as part of the team caring for your baby. Other family members, including siblings and grandparents, can be more involved too.

If there’s anything you’re not sure about, it’s OK to ask the staff to let you know how the nursery works.

When your baby moves to the special care nursery, it’s a good time to start planning for your baby going home.