Being a parent on the neonatal unit

Baby attached to tubes being comforted by parent's hands

If your baby was born prematurely or sick, they were probably taken away from you soon after birth.

Arriving in the neonatal unit and watching the staff care for your baby can make many parents feel like they aren’t doing what parents should do for their baby. Some parents feel helpless and worried.

You may have imagined your first moments with your new baby being full of joy - being in a neonatal unit often takes those moments away from you.

Health professionals understand that it is really important to support families to parent their baby when they are on the unit.

They also know that it is really important that you always know what is happening with your baby, and that you have the information you need. This type of care for you and your family is called family-centred care.

I spoke to a nurse. She said "You are important. You see your baby every day - you know them best. We make clinical decisions but she is your daughter. Don't ever forget that".

Katy, mum to Vivian

Family-centred care helps parents and families connect with their baby. It also helps your baby to bond with you, be comforted, and get used to things like kangaroo (skin-to-skin) care and breastfeeding.

Parents being involved with their baby’s care is shown to help their baby’s progress and development.

Find out more about family-centred care.

We’ve included some things you might like to try to get more involved in your baby’s care. Talk to a nurse or member of the team about what else you can do to parent your baby on the unit.


You are your baby’s parent. Your baby knows your voice, your smell, and will be comforted by you being there. No one else can take your place.

Skin-to-skin in the first few days on the unit

Sometimes called kangaroo care, this means placing your baby undressed onto your bare skin on your chest, so that your skin touches.

This is shown to help you to connect with your baby, as well as calming your baby if they are feeling pain or stress. Mums, dads, brothers, sisters and other family members can do skin-to-skin.

Staff will let you know if your baby is ready to have skin-to-skin with you – sometimes you might need to wait until they are more stable.

The nurses will help you to get your baby onto your chest. This might take a little time if your baby is attached to many wires or a ventilator. They will show you how to support your baby and make the most of this time together.

For kangaroo care to really benefit your baby you need to do this for at least one hour, if possible. Make sure you are really comfortable, and have everything you need before you start.

Feeding your baby on the neonatal unit

Babies on the neonatal unit can have breastmilk, donor breastmilk, or formula milk. Your baby may not be able to be breastfed straightaway, but can have expressed breast milk through a tube.

If mum is unable to express breastmilk or you as parents choose not to, your baby can also have formula. This can also be fed by a tube (called enteral nutrition, or EN) if your baby is not ready to take milk by themselves.

Sometimes a baby’s stomach might not be mature enough to have any kind of milk, and so they are given their nutrition through a vein, called parenteral nutrition, or PN.

Parenteral nutrition is a special liquid which has the right balance of nutrients to help the growth of babies who aren’t able to have milk yet. This is likely to be the case for babies born very early. This type of feed can also be given through a vein in their umbilical cord.

Your baby might also be given formula if mum is on certain medication which might affect your baby.

Sometimes a fortifier is given to some babies to make sure they receive all the nutrients they need on top of the breastmilk. This is is added straight into the milk.

Whether you are tube feeding, breastfeeding or bottle feeding your baby, you can get involved. Many parents tell us that having skin-to-skin whilst feeding, expressing breastmilk or giving their baby their first bottle feed gives them lasting memories that they treasure.

Read more about research Bliss funded into PN feeding.

Washing and changing your baby

The nurses and neonatal team can support you to wash your baby and change their nappy. This can feel hard when they are connected to wires and monitors.

The nurses will show you the best way to do this to make sure your baby feels comfortable.

Doing these things, sometimes called your baby’s cares, helps parents play more of a hands-on role in their baby’s day-to-day needs. This can help parents feel connected with their baby.

If your baby was born prematurely, regular nappies might be too big.

Ask your unit if they have some Pampers Preemie Protection nappies – they have three sizes, specially made for the smallest babies. These are available for units to order for free. Visit our page on Pampers for more information.

Making decisions and getting consent for your baby’s care

Your baby is at the heart of your family, and so the neonatal team must include you when talking about your baby and support you when decisions need to be made .

Your unit should encourage you to be there and talk with the doctors during their rounds. Ask if you can read your baby’s medical notes too.

The health professionals need to get written consent from you for operations and some other procedures. This means getting your agreement that the operation or procedure can happen to your baby.

If you are not on the unit, for example in the middle of the night, 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.

I didn't feel like she was mine, or if she knew me. A nurse said to me "She knows her mummy. Look how her head turned when you said hello." Then I realised - I am a mummy.

Emily, mum to Violet

Watching your baby

Sometimes you might feel like you spend a lot of time just looking at your baby. This is really important. It can help you to learn how your baby shows signs of pain and being uncomfortable, as well as when they are calm and content.

This, combined with your natural intuition as a parent, will help you to help the doctors and nurses – together you can tell when your baby might not be feeling very well, or might be in pain. The unit should have a place for you to write some of this information in your baby’s notes.

Feeling closer to your baby

For some parents, the first time they hold their baby may be some time after they are born. Not being able to hold them whenever you want, or take them home to show your family and friends, can make you feel like you are very distant from your baby, physically and emotionally.

There are some things you can try to help with this feeling of separation.

Talk to a member of the neonatal staff about how they can support you to try some of these:

  • Putting a small square of material that smells of you in your baby’s incubator. They will recognise your smell and it can help to calm them. This can also help you to feel you are there, even when you aren’t physically there.
  • Having something which smells of your baby close to you. This can help them feel nearer to you. If you are expressing milk for them, the smell of your baby can also help your milk to flow.
  • Marking important milestones with your baby – gaining weight or coming off a piece of equipment are big steps for babies in the unit, and celebrating these can help you feel like you are making progress, together.

You can celebrate each milestone in your baby's journey with Bliss Baby Cards, specially designed for babies in neonatal care. You can order these via our online shop.

The information in this section is due for review May 2021