The browser you are using is too old for our website. Please visit from Chrome and you will be able to browse normally.


      What happens if you have a premature baby?

      Nurse and premature baby

      What to expect in the neonatal unit

      Around 1 in 10 babies are born prematurely (before 37 weeks) and most will need hospital care. After birth, depending on how early they are born, your baby will probably be taken to a neonatal unit or NICU (neonatal intensive care unit), which specialises in looking after premature or sick babies. How long they will stay there will depend on your baby’s needs; it could be just a few days, a week or two or, in some cases, months. But rest assured, they are in the best place they can be, getting the right level of care and attention.

      Understanding NICU equipment

      Seeing your premature baby attached to machines and tubes can be upsetting, but knowing what things are for can help put your mind at ease. Here are a few of the pieces of equipment you may come across:
      • Incubator – the special cot that helps keep your premature baby warm and protected from infection; some are closed, with hand-sized holes; others are open and may have an overhead heater or a heated mattress.
      • Vital signs monitors – these machines keep track of things like your baby’s heartbeat and breathing (through electrodes on your baby’s chest); blood pressure (usually through a small cuff around an arm or leg); and oxygen levels (through a probe around your baby’s foot or hand). These monitors are extremely sensitive and can sound off even at the slightest movement, so try not to panic each time you hear an alarm.
      • Breathing equipment – if your baby needs help breathing, they may need either a ventilator, CPAP (continuous positive airway pressure) or just oxygen. These usually involve tubes going into your baby’s nose (nasal cannula), or using a mask.
      • Phototherapy lights – around half of all babies develop jaundice, and it’s even more common in premature babies. It’s caused by too much ‘bilirubin’, which is normally removed from the body by the liver but this can be a slower process in newborns, leading to a build-up. Special lights placed over your baby or through a blanket help your baby’s body get rid of the bilirubin.

      These are just a few examples of the equipment your may need. If you’re not sure what something does, don’t be afraid to ask a doctor or neonatal nurse to explain it to you.

      Mum and baby

      What you can do to help in the neonatal unit

      While a neonatal nurse can provide the right medical care, hearing your voice and feeling your touch will help reassure and comfort your baby and help you bond.

       • Still touch – at first, your baby’s sensitive skin may not be ready for even gentle stroking, but simply placing your warm hand on them can still be soothing.
      • Containment holding – putting one hand on your baby’s head and the other on their middle can help them feel comforted and protected.
      • Kangaroo care – once your baby can be taken out of the cot, a great way to help their development is by holding them gently against your chest. This warm skin-to-skin contact not only helps you bond, it can help with breastfeeding, when your baby is ready.

      The other thing you can do to help your baby is remember to look after yourself. Having a premature baby can be emotionally and physically exhausting, and it’s easy to forget that you still need time to recover from giving birth. So try and get as much sleep as possible, don’t forget to eat healthily, and take regular breaks from your baby’s side to give yourself a breather.

      pink laptop

      Join the club

      Ready to stop worrying about what other people think and do what feels right to you? We’ll give you the support you need to follow your instincts and enjoy parenthood to the max:

      *Weaning is recommended at around 6 months. Please speak with a healthcare professional before introducing solid foods.

      Join the club

      Ready to stop worrying about what other people think and do what feels right to you? We’ll give you the support you need to follow your instincts and enjoy parenthood to the max:

      Helpful emails
      Non-judgemental support
      Free weaning plan*
      Tips from real parents

      *Weaning is recommended at around 6 months. Please speak with a healthcare professional before introducing solid foods.

      More from baby

      Looking for support, not judgement?


      Your privacy is important to us and therefore we would like to explain how we use cookies on this website. With your consent, we will use cookies to measure and analyse how our website is used (analytical cookies), to tailor it to your interests (personalisation cookies), and to show you relevant advertising and information (targeting cookies) we think you will like. For more information please read the cookie statement.

      Privacy Settings

      You can choose your preferences anytime for cookies and tracking. For more information please read our cookie policy.

      • Strictly necessary

        They are necessary for the website to function and cannot be switched off. They are usually only set in response to actions made by you which amount to a request for services (setting your privacy preferences, logging in, filling in forms, etc.). You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not then work.

      • Analytical cookies

        They allow us to count visits and traffic sources, to measure and improve the performance of our site. They show us which pages are the most and least popular and how visitors move around the site. If you do not allow these cookies we will not know when you have visited our site, and will not be able to monitor its performance.

      • Personalisation cookies

        They enable website’s enhanced functionality and personalization. They may be set by us or by third parties whose services we have added to our pages. If you do not allow these cookies, some or all of these services may not function properly.

      • Targeting cookies

        They may be set through our site by our advertising partners, to build a profile of your interests and to show you relevant adverts on other sites. They do not store directly personal information, but are based on uniquely identifying your browser and internet device. If you do not allow these cookies, you will experience less targeted advertising.