by Trish Ringley, RN
When a baby needs time in the NICU, bonding with your NICU baby can feel like an unbearable hurdle to overcome.
But of course, it’s still super important to do! Babies need their parents, and babies thrive when they form a healthy, strong bond with their parents.
Most people in the NICU learn very quickly about the many common bonding strategies, including kangaroo care, containing touch, and getting involved in taking temperatures and changing diapers. Without a doubt, these are important to do.
But there are some really wonderful yet more subtle ways to bond that go beyond these everyday activities. And I think they are incredibly helpful for making it easier to bond.
Each baby only gets one newborn period in their lives. So why not try a few more bonding activities to make the most of this time?
#1: Create a ritual
The NICU throws parents completely off balance, thrusts them into a strange, frightening, overwhelming world.
It’s very difficult to bond when you’re feeling like you can hardly get through each day or even each moment. So this bonding technique – creating a ritual – helps you find your center. It becomes an anchor to keep you steady and grounded.
Your ritual can be something you do alone or with your baby. It can be something you do at home or in the NICU. Or even in your car!
Here’s how you can get started: jot down 5 – 10 things that make you really happy that you could easily do every day. For example:
- Making a cup of tea
- Saying a prayer
- Wearing a really comfy pair of socks
- Doing a few stretches
- Doing a quiet meditation
- Wearing a piece of jewelry that makes you smile.
- Treating yourself to a delicious coffee drink or pastry
- Listening to a song that lifts your spirits
- Reading a book to your baby
- Reading scripture that’s meaningful to you
- Singing a lullaby to your baby
Now, try combining 2-3 of these every day. Perhaps you make a cup of tea while you journal and say a prayer. Or perhaps you do a quick quiet meditation while you stretch before you head out the door. Or perhaps you wear a special necklace every time you go in to the NICU, and then you read the same baby book every time you’re there. Or perhaps you pick up a favorite coffee treat and listen to an upbeat playlist on the drive in every time.
You can make this as simple or as deluxe as you’d like.
Whatever you do, choose things that are likely to calm your nerves, settle your mind, relax your body. And then do them. Every day.
You’ll find that the sense of control you get from having one thing you can count on every day, particularly because they’re nurturing and joyful to you, will be priceless.
#2: Create a Photo Journal
Taking photos of your baby may seem like just something you do, not necessarily a strategy for bonding with your NICU baby. But I see it differently. Parents who make a clear effort to document their experience through photos tend to get involved in a different way.
Too often, NICU parents feel sidelined by everything going on. It’s hard not to have a caregiving job; it’s hard to watch others doing everything and deciding everything. Creating a photo journal of the NICU days puts the parent in control and gives them a job – documenting the journey.
I’ve found that it makes parents a bit more observant, a bit more proactive about being included in daily activities, and a whole lot more involved in the little things.
So if you’d like to give this a try, jot down all the things you’d like to capture about your baby’s life.
You might include photos of:
- The environment (NICU bed, monitors, washing stations, pumping equipment, decorations, etc)
- Caregivers (NICU staff)
- Procedures (baths, line changes, oxygen changes, diaper changes)
- All the different faces your baby makes
- Close-ups of toes, fingers, noses, knees, ears
The benefits can be felt in the moment, when taking photos may be the only thing a parent can do on any given day. But the benefits are long lasting, because the memories captured will be cherished forever.
And if you’re worried that the photos are too upsetting, because of IV’s or vents or tubing or whatnot, please believe me that every parent I’ve ever spoken with is incredibly grateful to have all the photos.
#3: Record your Voice
One of the things that obviously hinders bonding with your NICU baby is all the time apart. Unless your NICU has space for you to stay 24/7, you’ll be apart from your baby. But there are ways to bond even when you’re apart.
Recording your voice is a brilliant way to give your baby the gift of your voice, even when you can’t be there.
It’s not free, but it can be pretty cheap. Two options work well:
- Buy an inexpensive voice recorder, and then record yourself talking to your baby. I know it may feel weird just talking to a recorder, knowing that all the nurses will be hearing it. But who cares? This is your baby and your baby loves your voice. So press “record” and tell your baby about your day, tell your baby how much you love him, tell your baby about all the fun adventures you’ll go on when you’re out of the NICU. Sing her a lullaby. Record his siblings telling him a story. Recite your favorite poem. Or even just read a book aloud and record that. Anything that gives your baby the sound of familiar soothing voices. Leave the device with your baby with a note asking nurses to play it when you’re gone.
- Buy a baby book with a voice recorder. There are many books available that have the recorder built in. You can record your voice reading the book, and the nurses can play it back for your baby.
I’ve watched as fussy babies instantly calm and become alert when they hear the sound of their parent’s voice. It’s absolutely worth it.
#4: Use Scent to Bond
Another technique I love for bonding with your NICU baby is using scent. Babies know the scent of their mother and their mother’s milk. So why not make sure your baby has that comforting, familiar scent when everything else about the NICU is so unfamiliar and strange?*
It’s easy to do! You simply wear a piece of cloth against your breast, chest or armpit area for several hours and then place that cloth with your baby when you’re leaving. Breast pads are great to use, but even a small washcloth will do – don’t wear any harsh deodorant please!
Now, the scent on the cloth will help your baby feel surrounded by familiar, comforting smells. How nice, knowing that your baby is feeling your presence even when you’re separated!
If you want to get really into it, you can imagine healing, loving thoughts for your baby when you’re wearing your cloth, so you can leave more than your scent, but also your wishes for love & healing.
*This probably works for dads too, but the research is limited and focuses mostly on babies recognizing their mother’s smell.
#5: Decorate your space
Finally, let’s be real – the NICU itself feels incredibly unwelcoming to most parents. There are loud alarms, nurses and staff everywhere, plastic beds with hospital bedding, monitors hovering. It’s nothing like home. It’s very institutional, very sterile. It’s rather uncomfortable.
It’s hard to bond when you feel so out of place.
So make the place feel better! Bring in whatever you can to make it feel more comfortable.
Some things I’ve seen families do to make the space more inviting:
- Hand-drawn pictures from siblings and cousins
- Family photos to surround baby with images of loved ones
- Blankets from home
- Get Well notes and cards
- Your own pillows from home
- Your own baby books to read aloud
- Small bins to organize the space
- Quotes and sayings (like Every Tiny Thing’s NICU Crib Art)
- Prayer Cards
Whatever you think of that would make the space more inviting, ask if you can bring it in.
I know that the pandemic is making this harder, with some NICUs implementing stricter restrictions on items from home. But ask, and get creative. For example, if sanitation is the concern, laminate the paper items like photos and notes so they can be easily sanitized.
I hope these five ideas will help you bond with your newborn. The NICU is without a doubt one of the hardest experiences any parent can have, but there are many ways to make the most of it.
For even more tips for bonding with your NICU baby, download Every Tiny Thing’s free ebook: “Connected: 20 Great Ways to Bond with your Baby in the NICU.” I hope it helps!
Trish Ringley, RN, is a mother of two and has been a NICU nurse since 1997, practicing in Alaska, Colorado and California. She is a passionate NICU-parent advocate and has recently become active in the online world of NICU parent support. Trish is the founder of Every Tiny Thing, an online store devoted exclusively to serving the needs of NICU families. When she’s not at work at the NICU, you can find Every Tiny Thing on Facebook or at EveryTinyThing.com.