Your love and any physical contact that you can provide are just as critical to your premature baby's well-being as the food, warmth, and oxygen he needs to survive.

Here are some things you may see and experience in the NICU.

When you visit your baby for the first time, he may look different than what you expected or remember.

You may be shocked at how small and helpless he may seem. You may feel an overwhelming need to protect him. You may even feel like crying, and that's okay. Cry if you want to. Everyone caring for your baby understands. The NICU staff helps parents just like you every day.

You may see medical staff and a lot of equipment that are unfamiliar.

Though some of the equipment may seem intimidating or frightening at first, each piece is very important to the care of your baby. In the article "Introduction to the Equipment in the NICU," we'll help you get familiar with some of the equipment you may see.

Since the NICU is such a busy place, you'll need to ask about the rules and visiting guidelines when you visit.

Your NICU staff can tell you the best times to visit your baby. Visits with your baby may also be more enjoyable if they coincide with his natural periods of alertness. A very tiny or sick baby may have very few periods of alertness. The interactions you can have may be limited at first.

As your baby grows, his alert periods will lengthen and his tolerance for stimulation will increase.

You may want to target your visits during feeding times because your baby is most likely to be alert and begin to associate feeding time with you.

Remember, your premature baby, like the rest of us, may have good days and bad days.

Because of his maturing nervous system, what may soothe your baby one day may not the next. Your baby may not be able to tolerate too much stimulation at one time. He may only be able to be touched, talked to, or looked at, but not all of these together. No two premature babies are alike. One may love to be rocked for hours, while another is overwhelmed by the slightest touch. Don't worry, your NICU staff will be there to suggest how and when to touch or hold your baby.

During your visits, your NICU nurses may ask you to wear a gown and wash your hands in a special way to prevent germs from being spread to your baby.

They may also ask you not to wear rings or other jewelry. Everything they do is to ensure the best possible care for your baby.

If your baby is going to be in the NICU for a long time, and you have other children at home wanting to see their new baby, talk with your NICU staff about arranging visits.

They will do everything possible to involve your entire family in your baby's care. Many hospitals allow sibling visitation. Sometimes these are arranged for a specific day of the week. You may also encourage your older children to colour or draw a picture for the baby to be left at the nursery. Allowing them to bring or send a gift may help them feel more in touch with the baby until he gets to come home. Some families bring an audio tape for the baby to listen to, and sing or tell stories so their baby can be soothed by a familiar voice.

The time your baby is in the NICU may be a trying, stressful time for your entire family. Just remember, it won't last forever. He is growing stronger every day. Visit your baby as often as possible. Your love is the best medicine he can receive.

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