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Bringing Home a NICU Baby? Here’s What to Know About Sleep

By Carolynne J. Harvey, baby sleep expert & founder, Dream Baby Sleep 

Experiencing a NICU stay is a challenging and stressful experience for any parent.  And when your little one graduates, you initially feel a sense of relief and joy…but all of that stress comes rushing back when you realize that now YOU have to take care of your newborn without the 24/7 support from the NICU nurses and staff. 

As difficult as NICU life is, coming home presents a whole new set of challenges, especially when it comes to sleep.  You may be struggling to get sleep for both you and your baby, who is frequently (very frequently) waking to feed.  It’s completely natural and normal to feel overwhelmed. Here are a few key sleep tips that I share with my NICU families that are transitioning home from the hospital to help the whole family get the best sleep possible: 

Practice Safe Sleep

In the NICU, your little one may have been sleeping on their side or stomach, or maybe they were nested, or on an incline – these are all common NICU sleep tactics known as “therapeutic positioning.” But remember, sleep in the NICU is under the careful, constant supervision of well-trained nurses.  Once your baby is home, it is crucial to implement safe sleep practices, including always placing them on their back in a crib, bassinet, or play yard with no loose bedding, stuffed animals, or other toys. (For more information on the American Academy of Pediatrics’ NICU safe sleep recommendations, see here.) If they are used to the NICU environment, it may be harder to get them to sleep at first, but safe sleep is so important. You’ll get there!

Set Realistic Expectations

If your NICU baby was born prematurely, you’ll use their adjusted age (based on their estimated due date) for their sleep needs. This may mean that while on-time 4 month olds sleep 6 or 8 hour stretches at night, a baby that was born 2 months premature may be closer to 6 or even 8 months before they can do the same. This is normal! Don’t compare your baby to others or get discouraged.

Create a Soothing Sleep Environment

Creating a good sleep environment is another way you can help your NICU grad get some rest at home. Ensure the room is nice and dark, set the temperature between 68 and 72 degrees, and turn on a white noise machine, as the sound will remind your baby of being in the womb, which is very comforting. Lastly, if your baby isn’t rolling, make sure to snuggly swaddle them— the snug feeling also is similar to being in the womb.  All of these things can help promote great sleep. 

Go Outside

Exposing your baby to natural sunlight helps establish their circadian rhythm, the biological system that helps tell our bodies to sleep at night and be awake during the day. Babies are not able to produce their own melatonin, the hormone that cues our bodies to go to sleep at night, until about 16 weeks of age (adjusted), so premature babies are more likely to be a little mixed-up between day and night after spending time in the NICU. But getting outside really does help! Bonus: it can improve your mood, too. 

Get Moving, Motion Helps

After discharge, it’s normal to feel overwhelmed. Use the tools you have, as long as you use them safely.  Try babywearing in a carrier or wrap for one of their naps— they need sleep, and a carrier can be a huge helper in making them feel safe and secure. You can also put them in the stroller and go for a walk— the motion can help lull them to sleep and it’s a great way to make sure you both get some time outside.  At home I love the MamaRoo Sleep Bassinet because it has 5 unique motions (car ride, kangaroo, tree swing, rock a bye, and wave) to soothe your baby & improve sleep.   

It may be hard now, but trust that it will get better. Especially if your baby is under 12 weeks, get that sleep in however you can!

Written by: Carolynne J. Harvey, Baby Sleep Expert, author and founder of Dream Baby Sleep®. Carolynne and her team educate and empower tired parents around the world to take control of sleep in their homes. She is a graduate of The Institute of Pediatric Sleep and Parenting™ Certified Sleep Consultants, Newborn Sleep Certified and attended Family Sleep Institute’s Child Sleep Consultant program. Dream Baby Sleep® has been designated a safe sleep guardian by 501c3 First Candle. Carolynne is an active member of the International Association of Child Sleep Consultants (IACSC) and she is a frequent speaker at industry conferences and events.

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