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Two pound, 11 ounce Noah was born 13 weeks early. Today this lifesaving equipment and isolette take the place of his mother's womb.
Noah's mom: This is Noah. Right now, I can tell you he's a fighter. He's so strong already. And he, he's curious, he looks around a lot.
Narrator: Trying to parent your preemie in the neonatal intensive care unit, or NICU, may feel impossible…
Mom: What I would like to do right now is just to pick him up and hold him… all the time...
Narrator: ..even heartbreaking at times.
Dr. Phyllis Dennery: It is always very, very distressing to be told that your baby is transferred to the neonatal intensive care unit.
Narrator: Dr. Phyllis Dennery is chief of the division of neonatology at the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia. The parent of a preemie herself, Dr. Dennery likes to encourage families to get involved in daily care of their preemie in the NICU as soon as possible.
Doctor: You have to also learn that you are going to be a part of this environment and you're going to be part of the baby's next weeks or so in the intensive care unit.
Narrator: Most NICUs are open for parents to visit 24 hours a day.
Noah's mom: I thought we couldn't come near him at all or touch him at all and it would just be a very sterile environment.
Narrator: Noah is too fragile to leave his isolette and be held. But that didn't stop his mother from taking charge of some of his routine needs, like taking his temperature and changing his diaper.
Noah's dad: My wife has been helping out the neonatal nurses, and she does a really good job with it.
Nurse Kasia Konizer: Parents, they're looking for any kind of activity that involves touching the baby or handling the baby and anything to give them a sense of they're doing something for their baby while they're here in the NICU.
Narrator: It's normal for your preemie to sleep most of the day. Parents should spend a little time each day speaking softly or reading to their preemie, since familiar voices are comforting.
Preemies also need lots of touch, but their developing nervous system is often very sensitive to stimulation.
Always sanitize your hands before touching your baby. Try to avoid stroking his skin or hair. Instead, preemies prefer the gentle steady pressure of your hand around their legs, chest, or head to help them feel calm and secure.
Noah's mom: I just put my hands over his legs to brace his legs and over his chest so he feels swaddled.
Narrator: Once your preemie is able to take short breaks outside the isolette, the next vital thing both Mom and Dad can do for their preemie is provide skin-to-skin contact, also called kangaroo care.
Even babies on ventilators can receive kangaroo care. A neonatal nurse will work with you in a slow, step-by-step process.
Studies show preemies can maintain their temperature longer and improve their breathing and heart rates when they receive more skin-to-skin contact.
Most NICUs encourage skin-to-skin contact daily for an hour or more. You'll benefit from the special connection too.
Aiden's mom: That's a day that I'll never forget. I can hold him next to me. He could hear my heartbeat, which is what I wanted him to hear and remember from being inside me.
Narrator: Pumping your breast milk is one of the best things you can do to help your preemie. If your baby can't yet digest breast milk, pumping will help build up your milk supply.
Nurse: Every parent gets their own bin to place the baby's milk in.
Ryan's receiving breast milk through the tube right now. It's actually one of the most digestible formulas or milk that we can give the baby so we encourage that.
Narrator: Preemies' skin is very delicate so it will be some time before you can give your baby a tub bath. For now, you can clean him with water and soft cloths.
It's a good idea to take some time for yourself. Many NICUs will have a family break room and kitchen as well as rooms for pumping breast milk. Some NICUs also offer the option to reserve an overnight room to stay close and get some rest.
Many NICUs offer parenting and CPR classes. Some also encourage music therapy, which has been shown to reduce preemies' stress level and improve their feeding ability.
Ask plenty of questions and take advantage of the specialized therapists and social workers on hand to support your family.
Ryan's mom: It really is the roller coaster that it's described to be. You have good days; you have bad days.
Narrator: It's common for preemies' health to regress before they get stronger. As difficult as this is to bear, it's normal.
You can find encouragement and support from NICU families who've already overcome challenges with their baby.
Aiden's mom: I've built my confidence through knowledge and understanding and partnering with your medical professionals. That helped us get through all of this.
Ryan's mom: For me, pumping is something that I could do and have control over and contribute to his health care.
Noah's mom: They've been encouraging us to, to hold him and to touch his feet and touch his hands and his head, and to be as involved as we want to be with his daily care, which has been amazing for us to kind of have the bond.
Narrator: While you may come into the NICU feeling scared and helpless, you'll soon see how vital your role is in caring for your baby and how critical you are to his healthy development.
Nurse: Our ultimate goal is to help the baby and the family get to a point where they can take their baby home and have a happy ending.