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Sleep after the NICU

Babies go to the neonatal ICU for all sorts of reasons, and a NICU stay may come as a surprise for many families. After all, not just premature babies go to the NICU. Quite a bit goes on during a stay in the NICU for both baby and parents. If you recently brought your little one home or are preparing for discharge, you may be wondering what sleep will look like at home. You have all been through so much, and there can be some anxiety around finally having your little one at home. Let’s take a look at what you can expect with sleep after a NICU stay.

The NICU tends to be pretty bright and loud, especially for a tiny baby. NICU babies go through many tests and procedures during their stay. As a NICU nurse, we try to keep the environment as dark, quiet, and calming as possible, but these babies still go through a lot that simply can’t be avoided.

When you first bring your NICU baby home, you may feel like you’re getting to know them all over again and getting into your own routine. It will be an adjustment period for everyone. You may have medications and frequent feedings that dictate your routine. However, remember that you are the expert on your baby (especially after a long NICU stay advocating for them!) and you know them best.

Since NICU babies are exposed to lots of lights and sounds, they probably won’t like sleeping in a dark and quiet room. You can try white noise or they have recordings of NICU sounds you could play. If your little one prefers having some light while they sleep, try using a red light, as this has the least impact on melatonin production.

Your NICU baby is likely also used to being swaddled, so you may want to continue this at home for a little bit as long as they aren’t rolling yet. However, some babies no longer enjoy the swaddle or may be uncomfortable or get overly warm when swaddled. It is ok to not continue this at home if it doesn’t work for them! You can choose to slowly transition them out, or stop the swaddle cold turkey.

As far as bedsharing goes with premature babies, it is not currently recommended. Premature babies are at a much higher risk of SIDS and there isn’t enough research on premature babies bedsharing to recommend for it. Though it may be safe at some point, there just isn’t enough information on when. The risks outweigh the benefits in this situation.

Don’t forget about yourself when you have a NICU baby. It is easy to put all your focus on your little one in this situation, but you are also going through a lot and may have experienced some birth trauma. Always reach out for help from your care team if you feel you need it, and really lean into your village for support during this time.

No matter what your NICU stay looked like or what monitors or medications baby comes home on, you still know what is best for them. You will get into your own routine surrounding their needs and figure out what works best for your family. You are the best parent for your sweet baby!

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