1 in 9 newborn babies in the UK spend time in a specialist neonatal unit. This may be because they have arrived too early or because they are too sick to cope on their own. Knowing what will happen if your baby needs special care can make the experience less frightening.
Sometimes special care babies can remain on the postnatal ward if it is felt that the treatment they need can be safely carried out there.
Other times babies are placed in a special baby unit; a ward that has specially trained staff and the equipment to care for small and sick babies.
The most common reason for babies needing specialist care is being born weeks or even months before their due date.
Other reasons include low birth weight, breathing, circulation or other life threatening problems, severe jaundice after the birth, a difficult delivery or the need for surgery.
Some babies need to be put on a 'drip' because they require intravenous antibiotics to treat infection while others just need some extra monitoring. The length of a baby's stay in one of these units can vary from a day or two, to weeks or even several months, depending on the baby's needs.
On first sight, these units can appear very scary. There is a lot of complicated equipment which is used to monitor your baby, control her environment and assist her bodily functions, such as breathing, as well as supplying her with drugs, fluids and nutrients.
Your baby may be placed in a cot or an incubator with a ventilator – a machine that helps your baby's breathing – if your baby has breathing difficulties.
Ask the staff to explain what the equipment is for and how it is helping your baby. The staff in these units have been specially trained to look after your baby and will be happy to discuss any concerns you have.
If your baby is very tiny she will be in an incubator rather than a cot as this will keep her warm. Some incubators have open tops, others have holes in the side, so that even if you can't hold your baby you can talk to her and gently place your hands on her.
It's really important to spend time with your baby while she's in the neonatal unit as this will help you to bond with each other.
You will be encouraged to breastfeed or express your milk as the benefits from breastfeeding are particularly important for pre-term babies.
You should begin expressing your milk as soon as possible after the birth, your milk can then be stored until your baby needs it.
Very premature babies can't coordinate all of the muscles needed for sucking and swallowing, so a tube may be passed through their nose (a naso-gastric tube) or their mouth into their stomach to help them feed.
Although it looks uncomfortable, being fed through the tube doesn't hurt your baby.
Before your baby can go home she will need to be feeding well and putting on weight. If your baby has to remain in hospital for weeks, or even months, it is likely that you will have to go home leaving her in the baby unit.
This can be very hard to do and it's quite natural to feel torn between wanting to be with your baby and the needs of the rest of your family. The staff will be able to reassure you and tell you what is best for you and your baby.
If you do have to leave your baby in the hospital you will be able to visit every day. While you are with her you will be able to touch her and the sound of your voice will be comforting to her.
Visitors, other than parents, may be limited because of the risk of infection.