How the baby unit works
You’ll probably spend a lot of time in the baby unit (also called the neonatal or special care baby unit). This may feel strange at first, but you will soon get used to how the unit works and what all the equipment does.
Each unit has its own routine and the healthcare team will show you around and tell you everything you need to know. As your baby’s parent, you’re not classed as a visitor to the baby unit and are welcome to come and go from the unit at any time of the day or night. But occasionally in some units the healthcare team may ask you to leave the cotside for brief periods, for example during handover at shift changes.
There may also be quiet times when noise is kept to a minimum so the babies can rest.
Levels of care
There are different types of neonatal units in the NHS. Babies admitted to a neonatal unit will get care according to what they need, which may change while they spend time in hospital. Here’s more information about the different units:
Neonatal intensive care units (NICU)
NICUs provide care for premature babies of all ages with the highest need for support. They also care for very premature babies aged 22–26 weeks.
You might have been transferred to a different hospital which has a neonatal intensive care unit before your baby was born.
Local neonatal unit (LNU)
Local neonatal units (LNUs) provide special care for babies in their local area, except for those who are very unwell and need complex or longer-term intensive care.
Many babies aged 27 weeks or over will receive their full care, including short periods of intensive care, within their LNU. Others may stay in a neonatal intensive care unit (see above), depending on where they live.
Special care baby unit (SCBU)
The special care baby unit (SCBU, pronounced 'skaboo') is also known as the special care unit (SCU). The SCBU provides the level of care for babies born after 32 weeks. This may include:
- monitoring breathing and heart rate
- giving milk through a tube into the stomach
- treatment with oxygen
- treatment for yellowing of the skin and whites of the eyes (jaundice).
SCBUs also provide emergency treatment for babies who need to be transferred to the NICU. Babies that have stayed in a local neonatal unit or intensive care unit (see above) may move to a SCBU if they no longer need as much care but they’re not quite well enough to go home.
Transitional care (TC)
This allows mums and babies to stay together in hospital, with the mum providing most of the baby’s care, but with support from the neonatal and maternity team.
You and your baby may stay in transitional care if your baby is born between 34 and 37 weeks or if your baby has been in the NICU and is getting ready to go home. This may not be possible in all units, as not every hospital can offer this.
Your role in the neonatal unit
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 anyone or anything else. You are welcome to come and go from the unit at any time of day or night. It is also important that you are not separated from your baby unnecessarily.
“Many parents spend time talking to, reading to and singing to their babies. This may seem unnatural initially, but you should not feel embarrassed because it is a good way to bond.”
The healthcare team will do everything they can to make sure that you can stay with them as much as possible.
At first, many parents feel too intimidated by the medical environment or by the size of their baby to try to provide baby care. Your healthcare team are there to support you. They will show you how to care for your baby, which will help you increase your confidence.
If you have other children, some baby units allow the baby’s older brothers and sisters to help with their care too.
There are lots of ways you can help your baby while they’re in the baby unit. Find out more about your role in caring for your baby.
Making decisions about your baby’s treatment
The neonatal team must include you when talking about your baby and support you when decisions need to be made. It may help to be there and talk with the doctors during their rounds. You can ask for a meeting with the medical team if you can’t be there for rounds or if there is more you’d like to talk about.
The health professionals need to get written consent (permission) from you for operations and some other procedures.
If you’re not on the unit and your baby is unwell, urgent decisions might be made quickly to make sure your baby gets the best care. This may also happen if there is an unexpected change in your baby’s condition. The team should talk to you about these decisions as soon as possible.
Hygiene in baby units
As your baby’s immune system isn’t fully developed, they are at greater risk of infection. To help protect all the babies in the baby unit, the healthcare team will ask you to wash your hands when you enter the unit and as you walk around. They may also ask you not to wear jewellery, such as rings and watches.
The healthcare team will tell you what hygiene rules they have in place as well as where you can wash your hands and store your outdoor clothes and belongings.
As your baby’s parent, you can help protect your baby by making sure everyone around you follows the hospital’s infection control policies. Never be afraid to ask people whether they have washed their hands.
Is there somewhere I can take a break?
Many units have a parents' room where you can rest. Some also have a kitchen, and a playroom for older brothers and sisters.
Can I stay overnight with my premature baby?
Some hospitals have rooms near or in the baby unit for parents to stay overnight but there is often a shortage of available rooms. If you can’t get a room at the hospital, the healthcare team may be able to give you contact details of other local accommodation, such as Ronald Macdonald houses.
Some baby units have a family room where parents can 'room in' with their baby for a few nights before taking them home. This gives you some time to get used to caring for your baby independently but with support from the healthcare team should you need it.
Bliss has more information about routines on the baby unit.
Find out more about coping with a premature birth and caring for your premature baby at home.
Pillay T et al (2019) Optimising neonatal service provision for preterm babies born between 27 and 31 weeks gestation in England (OPTIPREM), using national data, qualitative research and economic analysis: a study protocol. BMJ Open 2019;9:e029421. doi:10.1136/bmjopen-2019-029421
British Association of Perinatal Medicine (2017) Neonatal Transitional Care: A Framework for Practice. British Association of Perinatal Medicine. https://www.bapm.org/resources/24-neonatal-transitional-care-a-framework-for-practice-2017
Macdonald S, Johnson G (2017) Maye’s Midwifery 15th edition. Elsevier, London.
EFCNI, Helder O et al. (2018) European Standards of Care for Newborn Health: Hand hygiene. European Foundation for the Care of Newborn Infants. https://newborn-health-standards.org/hand_hygiene/
Bliss (2016) Families kept apart: barriers to parents’ involvement in their baby’s hospital care. https://s3.eu-west-2.amazonaws.com/files.bliss.org.uk/documents/Research-and-campaigns/Campaigns/Families-kept-apart.pdf?
EFCNI, Moen A et al. (2018) European Standards of Care for Newborn Health: General layout of the unit. European Foundation for the Care of Newborn Infants. https://newborn-health-standards.org/layout-nicu/