Bonding with Your Baby in the NICU

By Katelyn Zilles, Certified Child Life Specialist in Lurie Children's NICU

This post is part of our newborn health and wellness series. For more information from our pediatric experts, visit our Newborn Resources page

It is normal for parents who have an infant in the NICU to feel like they are not bonding with their baby in the typical sense. The ICU environment can be overwhelming to navigate and new parents are often naturally focused first on their most basic needs of safety and security. Secondary emotions, such as bonding and eventually attachment, may seem unattainable.

Regardless of the reason for admission to the NICU, not feeling close to your baby is a common response for days, if not weeks, for many parents. The NICU Family Support team aims to support caregiver coping and adjustment because when parents become accustomed to the NICU environment, they often feel more at ease and connected with their infant. Child Life Specialists, Social Workers, Developmental Specialists and other NICU professionals are here to help you as a new NICU parent or caregiver! 

Ways to Bond

While in the NICU, there are still many opportunities for you to bond with your baby, and our team is committed to creating an environment focused on supporting parents in this way. Here are a few steps to help build that bond:  

Touching and Holding Your Baby

Your care team will help you feel comfortable providing touch in the very specific ways that your baby is looking for and can tolerate. Some NICU infants can be held right away, and others may need alternative approaches. For parents of very sick or premature babies, we encourage containment holds or hand hugs. Many parents say that seeing their touch help soothe and calm their infant supports their bond. Skin to skin, also known as kangaroo care, is a special way for caregivers to hold their infant. We encourage all our NICU families to talk with their baby’s provider about when they can start kangaroo care. NICU infants with tubes and wires can still practice kangaroo care which has many benefits to the baby and to the caregiver. 

Interacting with Your Baby

Learning about your infant’s states and cues often helps increase feelings of confidence. This leads to more engagement with your infant and hopefully feelings of bonding. Start interactions very gently and closely observe your baby’s behavior. Are they making eye contact and breathing evenly? This is communicating that they are liking the interaction. In that case, keep going or gently increase the engagement. Or are they wincing, turning their head away, or hiccupping? This is an infant’s way of saying they need a break. If your baby is showing signs of readiness to interact you can try singing or reading to them! The NICU has its own special library of books for caregivers to borrow.

Feeding Your Baby

Navigating your infant’s feeding readiness and needs is oftentimes the most difficult hurdle for caregivers in the NICU. Many parents had a specific feeding plan that now requires adjusting. With this change comes a multitude of different emotions which may impact feelings of bonding. We encourage caregivers to be gentle with themselves as their baby’s medical team works to figure out what is safest for your infant. In the meantime, you can:

  • Advocate for your long-term goals and wishes and learn about your child’s plan of care
  • Connect with specialists that support your infant’s feeding plan of care such as Speech-Language Pathologists or Certified Breastfeeding Counselors
  • Provide comfort and gentle interaction (as tolerated) during your child’s tube or IV feeds such as holding or offering a pacifier

There is no right or wrong way to bond in the NICU. For some parents it’s easy and natural and for others it takes time and support. No matter your journey, you know your baby best and their bond with you started way before they entered the world or the NICU. 

Lurie Children's NICU is a Level III facility, which is the highest designation in Illinois for the level of specialized expertise and comprehensive resources available to treat the smallest and sickest babies. Patients in our 64-bed unit have immediate onsite access to 70 pediatric medical and surgical subspecialists, which allows us to treat a patient’s every need, no matter how complex. Learn more about our Neonatology team.

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