Tommy's PregnancyHub

Practical tips for surviving the baby unit

Having a preterm baby is a very difficult situation for parents. Here are some practical tips from other parents of premature babies that you may find useful.

Your baby will need medical care from the healthcare team but most of all, they need you. It’s important that you look after yourself so that you can be there for your baby. 

Looking after yourself will help you cope better physically and emotionally while your baby is in the baby unit. There’s lots of support available – for example, from family, friends and the healthcare team – so don’t be afraid to ask for what you need. 

Taking care of yourself after a premature birth

It's easy to forget about yourself. But even if you feel as if nothing matters apart from your baby, it's important to make sure you look after yourself. Try to make sure you have enough:

  • rest, this can be quiet rest or active, like going for a walk
  • baths or showers
  • fresh clothes
  • healthy food
  • fluids to prevent you becoming dehydrated.

Talking about how you feel

Try not to keep your feelings to yourself. Don’t feel guilty if you think you’re finding it extremely difficult. If you feel that things are getting too much for you, please talk to someone about it. This may be your partner, a close relative or friend or a member of the healthcare team such as the nurse or doctor looking after your baby. The hospital may also be able to offer you specialist support, such as counselling.

Talking to the healthcare team

While your baby is in the baby unit, you and the healthcare team will work together to ensure that your baby gets the comfort and support that they need. Please don't hesitate to ask questions of the healthcare team if you have any queries or concerns or some aspects of your baby’s management are not clear to you. The team will be used to supporting families in your situation. 

“The nurses become like a second family. They see you first thing in the morning, last thing at night and everything in between. They are there to share your babies milestones and to help you when things don’t go so well. Those late-night conversations about anything and everything were the things that sometimes kept me going. It was lovely to open up about all my hopes and fears to someone outside of the family who wouldn’t judge.”

Jen

Talking to other parents on the baby unit

It can be reassuring to talk to other parents with similar experiences. You may meet other parents on the baby unit. The healthcare team at the hospital may also have details of relevant local or online support groups where you can meet people.

The charity Bliss has trained volunteers called Bliss Champions who provide emotional support to parents face-to-face on the neonatal unit. Ask your unit if they have a Bliss Champion, or look out for a poster which will give times and days they visit. Find out more on the Bliss website.

The Netmums Bliss online forum is a supportive online community for parents, families or carers of babies born premature or sick.

Talking to your partner and family

You and your partner, if you have one, could talk together with your close family about how they can support you and your baby. Sometimes people have different ideas about how involved they will be, especially if they have other responsibilities, such as work and looking after other children. Agreeing everyone’s role at the beginning may help you feel more in control of the situation.

Try not to do too much when you’re away from the baby unit. You may need to remind other people that you have recently given birth and need time to rest.

"I would have loved to understand that it was ok for me to take a break. I was on the baby unit from 8am to 9 pm every day and expressing every 2-3 hours day and night, straight after an emergency section. It wasn't until a nurse told me that I needed to take care of me as well, that it was ok to take a break and rest that I went home for lunch and a nap one day. I felt 100 times better and I was able to call as soon as I woke to see how my son was doing."

Andrea

Getting practical help from others

If family and friends offer to help, think about practical things that they can do such that you can spend more time with your baby. People often want to help but feel powerless and may not know what to say or do. It can help if you tell them exactly what you need.

Some things they can do to help may include:

  • looking after your older children, if you have any – for example, picking them up from school or helping them with homework
  • looking after any pets
  • doing some of the shopping, washing or cleaning
  • preparing food that is easy to re-heat or cook
  • researching something for you – for example, this could be information about benefits you may be entitled to, places to eat or places to stay near the hospital 
  • looking for or buying baby items for when your baby comes home 
  • driving you to hospital appointments or to the shops if you don’t have a car 
  • meeting you for lunch/snack and a chat.

“We had to live away while our babies were in NICU. We set up a WhatsApp group with all the people who had offered to walk our dog. It was amazing and getting photos of him on the walks really brightened up our days!”

Jen

What to bring for a day at the baby unit

  • Cool, comfortable clothing for you – the baby unit will generally feel very warm. Talk to the staff about the best clothing to facilitate kangaroo care
  • Comfortable shoes or slippers.
  • Moisturiser and lip balm. 
  • Maternity pads and breast pads.
  • Nappies for premature babies.
  • Ear plugs for sleeping and resting.
  • An eye mask for sleeping in bright light.
  • Headphones and music to help you relax.
  • Some form of entertainment, such as a magazine, book, mobile phone or tablet.
  • A notebook or diary, to make notes or write down anything the doctor says.
  • A bottle to fill with water so you always have a drink to hand.

Keeping friends and family updated

Keeping everyone updated on how your baby is doing can be time-consuming and stressful, especially when they’re quite unwell. You may find it helps to ask one person to pass on any news to everyone else for you. 

Visiting times

As your baby’s parent, you are not classed as a visitor to the baby unit. You are partners in care alongside the healthcare professionals looking after your baby. 

Your baby needs you more than anything or anyone else. You should be able to be with your baby 24 hours a day. It’s also important that you are not separated from your baby unnecessarily. The healthcare team will do everything they can to make sure that you can stay with them as much as possible.

Visiting times for family members

Each unit has its own visiting policy. The unit may have set visiting hours for other family members and might ask you to limit the number of people. This allows the babies to get enough rest and lowers the risk of infections. 

Some hospitals allow brothers and sisters to visit. If you can, it may be helpful to bring your older children to see the baby in hospital.

If you find it stressful to have other people visiting your baby, then it’s okay to limit other visitors. On the other hand, having visitors can give you a break and a chance to talk and think about other things. You can let the healthcare team know what suits you and your situation best.

Looking after your other children

If you have older children, they may react to your premature baby in different ways. They may be very worried about the new baby and need reassurance. They are likely to notice that you are upset and find this very upsetting themselves. Here are some tips you could try:

  • Keep your children's lives as normal as possible. If children find it hard to understand what's happening, they may appear uninterested. They may also be jealous about the time you’re spending with the new baby. Keeping their usual daily routine the same as much as possible may help reassure them. 
  • Encourage them to bond with their new sibling. Try to give your children a sense of ownership of the baby by calling them 'your brother' or 'your sister' and help them to carry out small tasks to look after the baby. Older children might be able to hold or feed them, while you could help younger children to stroke them, draw a picture for them or tell their friends about them.
  • Be there for them when you can. You can help reassure and involve your children by explaining what’s happening in a way they can understand. Spending time alone with them, away from the baby, will give them a chance to talk to you about how they’re feeling and what else is going on in their lives. 

Practical issues

Maternity leave and pay 

If you are employed, you will have qualified for maternity leave and pay from the first day of your employment. Maternity leave gives you the right to take up to 52 weeks off work, with the right to return to the same job.

The earliest you can choose to start your maternity leave is 11 weeks before your baby is due. It is up to you to decide when you want to start your maternity leave and you must give your employer notice of the date you want to start your maternity leave by the end of the 15th week before your baby is due.

If your baby is born prematurely and you have not started your maternity leave yet, your maternity leave will start on the day after the birth. There is no flexibility over the start of your leave as it is compulsory to be off work for the first two weeks after childbirth (four weeks if you work in a factory). 

If you have changed jobs during pregnancy or you do not earn enough to get SMP or you are unemployed or self-employed during pregnancy you may qualify for Maternity Allowance. This is paid by Jobcentre plus. 

The earliest you can choose to start getting Maternity Allowance is 11 weeks before your expected week of childbirth. If your baby is born prematurely your maternity leave and Maternity Allowance will start the day after the day your baby is born.

Maternity Action UK have more information about your rights to maternity leave and pay if you’ve had a premature birth.

Help with travel costs to the hospital

As the parent of a patient, you may qualify for help with travel costs to and from hospital. You may be eligible if you (or your partner) get Universal Credit, Income Support, income-based Jobseeker’s Allowance or Pension Credit. You may also qualify if you have an NHS Tax Credit exemption certificate or if you are on a low income.

Contact the Patient Advice and Liaison Service (PALS) at your hospital for further information.

Free or reduced hospital parking

Hospital parking can be expensive. Some hospitals will let you park free of charge if your baby is in a neonatal unit or they may offer a lower rate for parking.

Ask the staff on the unit about the hospital policy and where to get a special permit, or you could ask the Patient Advice and Liaison Service (PALS) at your hospital. 

In Scotland and Wales, nearly all hospital parking is free. Parents in Scotland will be able to claim any parking costs incurred at hospital through the Neonatal Expenses Fund.

The Blue Badge Scheme

The blue badge is a disabled parking permit. If you are a parent of a child who is less than 3 years old, you can apply for a Blue Badge for your child if they have a specific medical condition. Your local council will decide if your child is eligible for a Blue Badge based on the evidence you submit.

Find out more about applying for a Blue Badge.

Where to stay

Some units offer overnight accommodation for parents, which might be a private room or just a reclining chair in a common room. Others will provide contact details of local accommodation where you can stay, such as through the Ronald McDonald House Charities website.

Some baby units have a family room where parents are encouraged to 'room in' with their baby for a few nights before taking them home, to help you all adjust to family life outside the unit.

Be aware that some hospitals may only allow parents to stay for a limited time, even if their baby needs to stay for longer. 

Registering your baby’s birth

You will have a lot going on at the moment, so it may be easy to forget that you will need to register your baby’s birth. In England, Northern Ireland and Wales, the law requires you to register a birth within 42 days. In Scotland, you need to register within 21 days. 

Your baby must be registered in the district where they were born. All births should be registered at the local registry office or at the hospital before the mother leaves. Your hospital will tell you whether you can register the birth there.

If the parent/s cannot register the birth (for example, for medical reasons), certain other people can do it:

  • someone who was present at the birth
  • someone who is responsible for the child
  • a member of the administrative staff at the hospital where the child was born.

Find out more about registering your baby’s birth at gov.uk

How Tommy’s can support you

Remember that Tommy’s midwives are ready to answer your questions, no matter how trivial you think they might be. They are trained talking about problems such as prematurity.

You can call the Tommy’s midwives for free on 0800 014 7800 (Monday to Friday, 9am to 5pm), or email us at [email protected]

GOV.uk Maternity pay and leave. https://www.gov.uk/maternity-pay-leave

GOV.uk Register a birth. https://www.gov.uk/register-birth