If you answered yes to any of the questions in my first post about wanting to work with acute care infants, then read this follow-up!
- The NICU is an intensive care unit: Infants in the NICU are critically ill or were in the recent past. These most fragile patients can become physiologically unstable at any time—and it might happen during your therapy. The emotional roller coaster of NICU leaves families fragile, too.
- It’s not easy to practice in the NICU environment: Quick and constant losses and triumphs cause emotions to run high. An infant’s status can change at any time. Caregivers are highly skilled and passionate, which sometimes leads to strong opinions and respectful disagreements. The SLP needs to thoughtfully collaborate, yet at times take a stand.
- The NICU SLP requires advanced practice skills: It’s not just knowing what to do, but what not to do. We often support feeding/swallowing, so the risk for compromising an infant’s airway is significant. Essential skills include solid critical reflective thinking, the ability to complete a differential, and broad, multi-system knowledge about preterm development and swallowing/feeding. Your preparation should include solid experience with the birth-to-3 patients, as well as continuing education, mentorship and guided participation with many infants in both the newborn nursery and the NICU. The NICU is too demanding to be an initial independent placement after graduate school.
- The NICU evidence base is rapidly evolving: Read, read, read as much professional neonatal literature as possible. Sources are not just within our field but also in medical, nursing and OT/PT journals. Our role is not only to understand the evidence base, but to bring it to the NICU team. Neonatologists and neonatal nurses will ask “why?” and we must be able to discuss the research-based evidence along with our clinical wisdom: For example, if you recommend changing from “volume-driven” to “infant-guided” feeding.
- The NICU is rewarding: After almost 30 years working full time in the NICU, not a day goes by that I don’t learn something, make a difference in an infant’s life or experience the joy of a grateful “thank you!” from a family. The appreciation from nurses and neonatologists when an infant can now feed safely and, therefore, go home, makes your day. With such rewards, however, comes great responsibility. In our hands lies the potential to influence parent-infant relationships through positive neuro-protective feeding experiences that wire the brain toward feeding and build future connections.
If you are thinking about moving into NICU practice, you will find lots of information on my website. Stay tuned for more tips to guide your journey!
Catherine S. Shaker, MS, CCC-SLP, BCS-S, works in acute care/inpatient pediatrics at Florida Hospital for Children in Orlando. She specializes in NICU services and has published in this practice area. She offers seminars on a variety of neonatal/pediatric swallowing/feeding topics across the country. Follow her at www.Shaker4SwallowingandFeeding.com or email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.