Being a family on the nnu

Most parents imagine that their first days and weeks with their new baby will be filled with happiness. Instead, this can turn to feelings of helplessness if they find themselves on the nnu. There is trauma and worry about their baby’s health, the worry of having to leave older children with friends or relatives, and they are in an unfamiliar environment, surrounded by strangers. Sometimes it is hard to feel like a “proper family” on the nnu.

In 2011 First Touch started funding the ground-breaking post of Family Centred Care Co-Ordinator, ensuring the best possible support was available to families. Funding for this role has now been taken over by the hospital trust as its huge value to families was quickly recognised and now First Touch continues to work very closely with Bobbie Everson, the Family Centred Care Co-Ordinator, funding initiatives to ensure every family is given the very best support to be a family on the nnu.

Nothing can prepare a child for their baby brother or sister arriving too soon or very poorly. Instead of their new sibling coming home, like in the story books, their baby is in hospital and mummy is hardly at home. Siblings are encouraged to visit the unit at any time with their mum or dad. First Touch keep the Family Rooms stocked with books, colouring and dvds and we will shortly be introducing Sibling Welcome Bags. There are also books in the small library in the Quiet Room specifically for siblings of sick and premature babies.

Having an ill or very premature baby admitted to the nnu is a frightening experience for both parents. For fathers there can be added complications; the perceived need to “stay strong” for their baby’s mother and perhaps the added worry of her also being ill after the birth. Dads are usually the main point of contact with their wider family, may have to look after other children or family members, and often they will need to go back to work whilst their baby is still very poorly.

We work hard to support dads as much as possible. Dads on our nnu have unrestricted access to ensure they can spend as much time with their baby as they are able and we fund the vCreate video messaging system so they can access videos of their baby, enabling them to feel close whilst they are away from the unit. On the unit dads are encouraged to engage in as much skin to skin contact with their little one as possible and to be involved in caring for their baby, just like they would at home. Dads are encouraged to make use of the unit’s counselling service and to attend the weekly Parents’ Meetings. We try hard to support our dads, and are always grateful to receive suggestions as to how we can improve our services further.

Containment holding and kangaroo care
Sadly, a sick or premature baby’s first experience of touch is often through uncomfortable medical procedures but human touch can be hugely positive and powerful and benefits both baby and parents and so nnu staff work hard to show parents how they can give physical comfort to their tiny babies.

When babies aren’t yet strong enough to be held, staff will show parents how containment holding can enable them to make their love be felt by their baby. For when babies are ready to come out of their incubator, First Touch has funded special “Kangaroo Care” chairs to enable parents and babies to relax and enjoy prolonged skin to skin cuddles together. Every family is also given a cuddle pack containing a beautiful blanket hand knitted by a First Touch volunteer, plus a pair of slippers and an eye mask so they can really make themselves at home and relax with their little one.

First Touch also funds special twin cots so that twins (and triplets) can cuddle up together just like they did in their mum’s womb.

Very sick and premature babies are fed in a variety of ways on the nnu but however it is done, feeding is a wonderful way for parents to be involved in their baby’s care. First Touch funds specialist staff training in all areas of breastfeeding to support parents and funds breast pumps, colostrum kits, decaffeinated drinks for breast feeding mums and equips and supports the milk bank to ensure donor breast milk is available for all babies if they need it.

Nappy changing and bathing
Nappy changing is rarely a parent’s favourite task but this is something which parents on the nnu begin to look forward to! It can seem like a very daunting task to start with, especially when a baby is in an incubator or attached to equipment, but for parents, having a positive role in supporting their baby is vital and nnu staff work with families to help them become confident caregivers. There may be a long wait for that first bath as premature babies’ skin is very delicate and even with warm water, a bath could cool the baby down too much. But once a baby has grown a little and is stronger, parents are encouraged to take the lead in bath time and enjoy this special time with their baby. First Touch is very grateful to Childs Farm for donating their organic products to ensure every baby’s first bath is a lovely, gentle experience.

Other ways to feel close
When they arrive on the unit, mums are given a pack of muslin “bonding” squares to enable both mum and baby to smell each other’s scent and feel close and secure. This also helps mums when they express milk. First Touch gives every family a Journey Box where they can store mementoes of their baby’s first weeks. In the box is a story book and families are encouraged to share stories as well as songs with their new baby as much as possible. Milestone cards are available to download here (link) to help you celebrate and remember all your baby’s tiny but important achievements.