Using Scent to Stay Connected to your Baby in the NICU

NICU baby girl with Down Syndrome has nasal cannula for oxygen and IV for fluids, sleeping on pink blankets, plus the text: Written by Trish Ringley, RN, BSN, NICU nurse & NICU parent advocate since 1997

Here's a typical day in the NICU, with a beautiful twist: 

A baby girl sleeps in the NICU in a dark, warm incubator. She can hear the bubbling of her oxygen, the beep of alarms, the sound of nurses and doctors talking. She’s very little, quite fragile, and even though she is receiving the absolute best care, she is still disconnected from mommy and daddy. 

For her safety and wellbeing, there is no other way. Her mommy and daddy visit every day, opening the portholes to reach in and touch her in a way that helps her relax and grow strong. They tell her stories, and their familiar voices soothe her. Mom provides milk. Even though it is only a drop or two, mother's milk gives this preemie a familiar taste that calms her. 

And then - watch closely - when it’s time for her parents to go home for the day, something beautiful happens:

Her mom slips a small pad of fabric out from under her shirt - a cloth that has been pressed next to her skin for hours, absorbing her scent - and tucks it safely near her baby girl’s head.

Now when the parents say their goodnights and when the portholes close, this lucky little preemie continues to smell that most familiar, most comforting smell she’s ever known - her mom. 

As long as she was in the womb, as long as her sense of smell was developed, it was the only smell she knew. And now she gets to be surrounded by that smell for hours (maybe days) inside her NICU home, even when her mommy can’t be with her.

Sounds nice, right? It really is, and better yet it’s super easy to do.

My favorite way is for mothers to use nursing pads. Moms buy a set of these and use them to leave her scent with her baby. Since most pads come in sets of 6-12, moms can actually use some of the pads for their intended purpose - keeping her clothes clean and dry. But several of the pads get set aside as a NICU tool that's simple yet effective.

How to start using scent to bond with your baby in the NICU

  • Talk with your NICU nurses about using this technique
  • Wash whatever cloth you intend to use for sharing your scent (Nursing pads are the best, but a small washcloth may work too)
  • Wear the cloth against your skin for several hours
  • Leave the cloth with your baby, near her head, when you leave
  • Take the previous day's cloth home to wash and then repeat


Why Nursing Pads are Great for this

They fit comfortably under your bra (which has the added benefit of absorbing your skin scent and the scent of your breastmilk), and they're the ideal size and shape to place next to your baby. 

These are a few very popular brands currently available - grab a set today and start bonding right away!


scent pads to collect skin mothers scent for nicu preemie

Enovoe Organic Bamboo Breastfeeding Pads (12 Pack) with Bonus Laundry Bag

bamboobies scent pads breast pads for bonding with NICU baby through mothers scent

Bamboobies Washable Leak-Proof Nursing Pads for Breastfeeding, Ultra Absorbent, Pair of 4/8 Pads

organic scent pads to collect mothers scent for micropreemie baby in incubator in NICU

Kindred Bravely Organic Washable Breast Pads 8-Pack

Another cool thing about doing this is that when mom trades out the pads, the pad that has been with her baby all this time now carries the smell of her baby.


Mothers love the smell of their babies, it calms them and the scent of baby can even help promote breast milk production. So it helps both moms and babies!


Once her baby is home, she can just use all of them as nursing pads. It's a WIN-WIN! But for now, what a beautiful and simple way to stay connected!


On a side note - A birth mother's scent is the baby's greatest preference, because that scent was carried in the amniotic fluid and was present 24/7 while baby was still in utero.


However, this form of using scent to stay connected is still possible for non-birth mothers. In situations when birth mothers are not involved in a baby's life - for instance, surrogate mothers or adoption experiences - it's still a wonderful way to introduce your baby to your scent and continue building that wonderful bond!


Whether it's an adoptive mother, single father, two mothers, two fathers, adoptive guardians - whoever.


If you wish to build a bond, scent is one way to do it.


If you want more ideas on bonding with your baby in the NICU, you can receive a digital version of my ebook Connected totally free. It is delivered to your email, but I promise I don't send tons of emails or spam. I'm just here to help you through the NICU! :)

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