This is the first in a series of blog posts about having a baby on the neonatal unit written by Lynne Wainwright – neonatal nurse, Senior Teaching Fellow and doctoral researcher at Kings College London.
When your baby is on the neonatal unit.
For most families the arrival of a new baby is a time for celebration and excitement. Sadly around 10% of babies will need to spend some time on a neonatal unit after birth. There are many reasons why this may be necessary ranging from the need for a short period of observation to months of intensive care.
The impact that an admission has on a family may be quite dramatic and it can be especially hard when there are older children in the family. Parents can feel a number of different emotions and this may not be related to how sick the baby is. After all, when it is your baby lying there of course you are going to be upset and anxious regardless of how much you might know that other babies may be much sicker.
The ‘struggle to juggle’
Parents often talk about ‘the struggle to juggle’ they face when trying to spend time with their baby and caring for their older children. Even when there are no older children the challenge can be ensuring that you also look after yourselves as parents. If you are not eating and drinking well and getting sufficient rest this can affect your breast milk supply and may reduce your ability to care for the baby. Mothers of babies in the neonatal unit are at an increased risk of postnatal depression and so it is even more important to look after yourself. It is a good idea to take breaks away from the cot side if only to go for a little walk or have a sleep.
Feelings of guilt
Parents who have older children may feel guilty wherever they are; when they are with the baby, they feel they should be with the older children and when they are with the older children, they feel they should be with the baby! There is no right or wrong way to do things, every family is different, and the routine needs to suit the whole family as well as the baby. Parents should not be afraid to ask questions of the doctors and nurses or feel that they cannot be involved in their baby’s care. Nursing staff on the unit will care for the baby and will support parents to do the baby’s cares such as their nappies and giving skin to skin. The amount parents can do will depend on a number of things, not least how they feel.
Visiting a neonatal unit – siblings
Siblings’ needs will vary according to their age and understanding. Most units allow them to visit the baby however, during the winter months when there is a high risk of respiratory infections (often called RSV season) they may not be able to visit. Children other than siblings will not be allowed on the unit. The important thing is to explain things as honestly as possible for their age, children understand and accept more than adults think. Visits are best kept quite short to prevent boredom. Some unit will have areas with activities for siblings and some have support available for siblings often run by volunteers who are trained in how to work with them to allow them to feel special. This allows parents time with the baby and that’s especially important when trying to establish feeding or having conversations with the doctors. Young children naturally want to run about and push buttons and there are a lot of those!
Visiting a neonatal unit – friends and family
Friends and family will often be keen to visit the baby and while they want to be supportive it is often best to restrict the number of people going to the unit to reduce the risk of infection. There will generally be a rule of 2 visitors at any one time and one of those will need to be Mum or Dad. Grandparents may be able to visit alone if this has been agreed with parents and documented.
Having a baby on the neonatal can be a challenging and difficult time, but your baby will receive expert care from a team of experts who will also provide a supportive and caring environment for the family.
Further advice and support…
If you’d like more information on caring for a premature baby or support and advice visit Bliss – www.bliss.org.uk
If your baby is being cared for at the neonatal unit at Gloucestershire Royal Hospital you will be able to access two active support groups for parents with babies on the unit – HOPE and their dad’s group, S.H.E.D. The staff on the unit will be able to give you more details of both.
Lynne trained as an children’ s and adult nurse at Great Ormond Street Hospital & The Hammersmith Hospital. She practiced as a children’s nurse for 11 years before specialising in Neonatal nursing for 11 years. She is currently a senior teaching fellow in the Department of child & family health teaching the neonatal nursing courses at King’s College London where she is also undertaking a PhD investigating the impact on the whole family, including siblings when a baby is admitted to the Neonatal unit. Lynne also practices as a bank sister in the special care baby unit of her local hospital in Dartford, Kent.