All maternity hospitals have a Special Care Baby Unit (SBCU), or Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NNICU), to care for babies who need extra care after they’re born.


Within the neonatal unit there will often be an intensive care unit for very sick babies, and also a high dependency unit for babies that need intravenous feeding (with a drip) or help with their breathing.

The rest of the unit will be devoted to babies whose needs are less serious – perhaps they need a bit of extra oxygen to help them breathe for a few days, or phototherapy treatment for newborn jaundice.

The vast majority of babies in special care are premature babies but the needs of these babies can vary a lot, so some will be in for a long time, while others may just be in for a day or two.

The care your baby will receive depends a lot on his particular health problems, but the following guide will give you a general insight into some of the things you’ll experience if your baby needs to go into SCBU.

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Equipment in the special care unit

Premature babies, and those with other health problems, need to be monitored very closely, as they’re prone to infection and may need help with their breathing.

Tiny babies are also not very good at controlling their own body temperature – this is why they’re placed in incubators, where the temperature is strictly controlled. You may wonder why babies in incubators aren't wrapped in blankets – it may not look cosy, but there's a good reason for it. The staff know exactly what the temperature is inside the incubator, so your baby will never be too cold, even without coverings, and this makes it much easier for the medical staff to keep an eye out for changes in skin colour, and see if your baby is breathing well.

If your baby is very premature or has trouble breathing, he won’t be able to suck, so may be fed milk via a tube into his stomach.

How to help your baby in special care

When your baby’s in the SCBU, you may feel a bit helpless – he’s being cared for by so many efficient doctors and nurses that it can seem as if there’s very little you can do to help. But you’re very special to your baby and your love is just as vital to his wellbeing as his medical treatment.

Talk to the staff to find out how you can get involved in caring for your baby and how you can ensure that what your doing is of benefit. If they do rule out anything you want to do – such as cuddling your baby – it’s probably because they know your baby won’t be able to cope with it yet.

Here are some of the ways you may be able to help him:

  • Talk to him soothingly Your baby will recognise your voice from when he was inside you – tests show that even the tiniest babies respond to their parents voices.
    • Touch your baby The touch of your skin is comforting and soothing, and has been shown to benefit premature or sick babies. If your baby is very tiny or ill, the most you can do may be what’s called containment holding. This is very simply laying your hand, very gently, on your baby’s body, and leaving it there, perfectly still for a few moments. Your baby will be aware of the human touch and will find it comforting. This still touch is often better for very vulnerable babies than stroking or patting, which can be too stressful.
    • Kangaroo care When babies are snuggled against their parents skin it will help you bond with him, but it will improve your baby’s wellbeing, too. Babies who’ve experienced kangaroo care sleep better, eat better, cry less and even have more oxygen flowing through their blood than those who haven’t.
    • Feed your baby If your baby is very premature or unwell in the beginning he may need to be fed intravenously – where glucose is fed directly into his veins. Later on, your breast milk will be the best thing for him. Prem' babies digestive systems are incredibly delicate, but breast milk is easily digested and contains antibodies that will help your baby fight infection. If he’s too weak to suckle, your milk can be given via a tube in his nose.
    • Get to know the staff You’ll feel more at home and part of the team if you understand how the unit works. If you find it hard to understand your baby’s condition talk to the sister in charge of the ward, or ask to see the pediatrician, who’ll be able to sit down with you and talk things through.

    How you may be feeling

    Visiting your baby day after day in the SCBU can be emotionally exhausting. Don’t feel guilty about taking time out for you and your partner. You’ve both been through a tough time, too. Try to talk through your emotions, as this is one way to ease the pressure and keep your relationship strong.

    A mum's story

    ‘My baby wasn’t breathing’

    “On the second day after the birth, while I was still in hospital, I got a real fright when Stephanie stopped breathing and her skin turned blue while I was feeding her.

    "The doctor examined her and said there’s a tiny valve in babies’ lungs which closes birth but sometimes it takes a couple of days, and this is what happened to Stephanie.

    "She went into special care so her breathing could be monitored for a couple of days to make sure she was all right, and then she was given the all clear and I took her home.


    "She never had any problems breathing after that, and I’ve almost forgotten the fright I got when it all happened!”
    Eileen, mum to Stephanie, 2