Getting services for your baby after the NICU

Babies who have spent a lot of time in a NICU can be at risk for delays in:

  • Speech and language
  • Cognitive skills (thinking, learning and reasoning skills)
  • Motor skills (moving with a purpose)

The earlier these delays are identified and treated, the more likely the child will be able to reach his potential later in life. In the United States, parents can contact state and local programs for help.

Early intervention programs

Children at risk of developmental delays are often referred to an early intervention program. States are required to:

  • Find and evaluate infants and toddlers who are at risk for, or who have, developmental delays or disabilities
  • Provide support services to these children

In most states, all NICU graduates are eligible for evaluation.

Your child will receive a diagnostic evaluation. The goal is to determine your child's strengths and any areas that can be improved. Depending on your child's needs, the evaluation may include health care providers in one or more of these fields:

  • Medicine
  • Nutrition
  • Psychology
  • Social work
  • Education
  • Hearing
  • Vision
  • Speech and language
  • Physical therapy
  • Occupational therapy

If the evaluation finds a delay or potential for delay, your baby may qualify for services. The level of delay required to qualify for services varies from state to state.

If your child is eligible for services

An Individual Family Service Plan (IFSP) is created to meet the needs of your child and family. Your child may receive services at home or elsewhere, depending on what he needs.

In an early intervention program, the family and the service providers work together. The goal is to give the child the best possible start in life.

Although it may be hard, try to be positive about a referral to these services. A referral is not a reflection on you or your parenting skills. By using the services, you are being a good parent. You are giving your baby the best chance to get a good start in school and in life.

Once your child turns 3 years old, your local school district is responsible for providing services to him. If you think your child might need special help, call your local school district and ask for an evaluation.

See also: Share your story

August 2009

Most common questions

How do I calculate adjusted age for preemies?

Chronological age is the age of a baby from the day of birth. Adjusted age is the age of the baby based on his due date. To calculate adjusted age, take your baby's chronological age (for example, 20 weeks) and subtract the number of weeks premature the baby was (6 weeks). This baby's adjusted age (20 - 6) is 14 weeks. Health care providers may use this age when they evaluate the baby's growth and development. Most premature babies catch up to their peers developmentally in 2 to 3 years. After that, differences in size or development are most likely due to individual differences, rather than to premature birth. Some very small babies take longer to catch up.

Is it OK to invite people over after leaving the NICU?

Babies who've been in the newborn intensive care unit (NICU) are often at higher risk of getting an infection than other babies. Be careful where you take the baby and who comes to visit her. But you don't need to stay in your house alone for the first months after your baby comes home.

If you do have visitors, make sure they wash their hands before touching the baby. Also, don't let adults or children who are sick, have a fever or have been exposed to an illness near her. Lastly, ask visitors not to smoke in your house.

My baby has developmental delays. Where can I find help?

Some babies leave the newborn intensive care unit (NICU) just fine while others may have developmental delays. The earlier these delays are identified and treated, the more likely your baby will be able to reach his potential later in life. Most NICU babies will be evaluated before leaving the NICU to see their strengths and any areas that can be improved. If you think your baby has developmental delays, talk to his health care provider about where to find early intervention services. Contact state and local programs for help.

©2013 March of Dimes Foundation. The March of Dimes is a non-profit organization recognized as tax-exempt under Internal Revenue Code section 501(c)(3).