How to Bond With Your NICU Baby

February 8, 2021

Bonding with your NICU baby is not easy, but it is crucial not only to the infant’s health, but to your own. 

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Parent interaction with a full-term baby is often immediate: holding, feeding, soothing. But when the unexpected happens and your baby is instead taken to the NICU, that can present barriers to forming an emotional connection with your baby. This disruption in the bonding process can cause feelings of grief, loss and maternal helplessness. It is associated with elevated risks for perinatal mood and anxiety disorders (PMADs), including PTSD.

A strong, positive health bond between parent and child is critical to the development of the child’s emotional, intellectual and physical well being. It’s also critical for the parents’ mental health. Studies have found that strengthening the parent/child bond could result in more competent parenting over the child’s life. 

How can we begin to process our emotions so we can no only show up in the NICU, but work to bond with our baby?

Bonding is a process that takes time and is not instantaneous. In the bonding process, we’re able to build our strengths bit by bit. While the NICU presents many barriers to the bonding process, there are still many ways you can bond with your medically fragile child while in the NICU. Here’s how you can bond with your NICU baby. 


Bonding when you can’t hold your baby

Many NICU parents describe feeling like a bystander rather than a parent, especially if their baby is so small and fragile that they cannot touch him or her. But there are still things you can do to begin the bonding process with your baby. If you are unable to hold your baby, please don’t worry that your chance to bond with them is lost. Remember bonding with your NICU baby is a process.

  • Speak, sing or read softly. Ask your medical team to advise you on what volume levels your baby can tolerate, and for how long. The sound of your voice will provide soothing comfort to your baby.
  • Be present. Visit often and make eye contact with your baby. Marriage and family therapist and NICU parent Kara Wahlin recommends looking at your baby and identifying what is unique about them, just like you would a full-term baby. “When you start in the NICU, it can feel very altered,” says Wahlin. “It can feel very unnatural. But in reality, you’re doing the very same thing that the parents of full-term babies are doing.”
  • Bring a little bit of home to the NICU. Bring pieces of your life to the isolette, such as family photos and sibling artwork. Carry a scent cloth with you and swap it out each time you visit. 

Kangaroo care and containment hold

Kangaroo care is an essential part of the bonding process for both the baby and the parents. It helps increase the baby’s weight gain and mother’s sense of competence. It also helps your baby regulate their breathing, keeps them warm, helps them learn muscle control, and teaches them to be calm. It also helps with milk production. Even if your baby is not breastfeeding yet, you can still hold them skin to skin while they are taking their feedings. 

At first, holding your baby may feel disorienting and uncomfortable. Wahlin recommends asking the NICU staff for a mirror so you can see your baby while you’re holding them.

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“The positive reinforcement for me to see that it was soothing to him, to be able to feel my skin and to hear my voice, that gave me the bravery to be able to do it again, to try and facilitate other ways of contact,” Wahlin says.

If your baby is not ready for kangaroo care, ask your NICU team if you can try a containment hold: place one hand gently on the baby’s head and the other on the baby’s tummy, back or feet. Stroking your baby may be too overwhelming for them, but practicing the containment hold can calm your baby and give you both the benefits of touch.


Participate in your baby’s care

When parents are integrated into the care of their baby, studies show shorter hospital stays, improved weight gain, higher rates of breastfeeding. It also is associated with lower stress scores in parents. Ask your NICU team if you can participate in:

  • diaper changes
  • baths
  • feedings
  • taking temperatures
  • kangaroo care

It’s important for both parents in the NICU to bond with their baby. If one is struggling, encourage each other to be as involved as possible. 

Remember, bonding with your NICU baby is a process that begins now, but continues throughout your child’s life. While your reality may not meet your expectations right now, there are still many ways you can bond with your baby in the NICU.


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