Caring for newborns, especially micro-preemies, will always have my heart.
I am a full-time nurse in the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) at a children’s hospital in Charlotte, North Carolina, and a part-time photographer.
I donate sessions to families who have a baby in the NICU because this special, yet unconventional time deserves to be photographed just as much as any other new baby experience. I’m so grateful to have the opportunity to merge my love for art and creativity with my passion for caring for preemies. Here, I’m sharing my best advice for photographing a baby in the NICU.
1. If you’re sick, don’t even think about it.
Premature babies are already at risk for a host of problems due to their immature immune systems. Even though you won’t be touching baby, any exposure to germs may have grave consequences. You’ll be asked to scrub your hands, but that sometimes isn’t enough. If you have the slightest inkling that you’re coming down with something or have been exposed to someone who is ill, reschedule your session.
2. Be sensitive to the situation.
It can be a deeply traumatic time for parents. While some moms know during pregnancy that there’s a risk of pre-term labor or a difficult delivery, many don’t know until their baby is being whisked away without their even being introduced. The NICU is an unknown environment to most, so there’s a sense of unease, especially when parents see their baby for the first time.
Parents are overcome with a rush of emotion, which is normally followed by many questions and concerns about their baby’s future. Be sensitive about the questions you ask, and try not to fish for information. Moms will share the information they want you to know. Reassure mom that you think her baby is absolutely precious; the kind words will go a long way during a difficult time.
3. Coordinate your sessions with care times.
Preemies are easily stimulated, and research shows that stimulation can cause complications such as intraventricular hemorrhage and even attention deficit disorder later in the child’s life. Try to coordinate your session with a time when the nurse is already planning to touch the baby.
Some babies get their diapers changed and vital signs taken only every 6 hours, while others can tolerate care every 3 hours. Be flexible and understanding when scheduling your session, and know that it may need to be rescheduled if the baby isn’t having a good day. Check in with mom the morning of the session to make sure it’s still a good time.
4. Limit your flash usage.
I try to avoid using my on-camera flash when photographing babies in the NICU. Preemies are especially sensitive to changes in light, and any extra stimulation can cause them to decompensate. Try to use available window light and position the parents at a 45-degree angle to the window if they’re holding the baby, or you can move the bed closer to the window.
You’ll need to shoot wide open and increase your ISO. You may also need to use noise reduction software in post-processing. If you absolutely need the additional light of a flash, use the lowest power necessary, and make sure to keep shutter clicks to a minimum.
5. Be mindful of staff and other families.
Nurses and doctors have a huge responsibility in caring for preemies. They don’t plan on being captured on camera, especially when trying to focus on the care of their charges. While some nurses love being recognized, others may not want to have their name associated with a particular unit in a specific hospital.
If you do photograph nurses while they are caring for a baby, try to avoid their name badge. Some NICUs don’t have private rooms, so make sure not to include other families in the frame, and always be respectful of privacy. Try adjusting your angle to crop them out, or use equipment to block them.
6. Ask the nurses for help.
Leave the touching to the nurses and parents.
7. Include the parents.
Parents are encouraged to be involved with their baby’s diaper changes, feedings, and anything else that they can help with. Keeping parents involved helps them to bond with baby and have a sense of accomplishment. They are proud to take care of their babies, so encourage them to let you document these ministrations.
If they do choose not to, I kindly remind them that these photos aren’t just for them, they’re also for the baby to look at later in life. The baby will want to see how much he’s always been loved by his parents. They’ll be the ones repositioning baby, if necessary.
I’ll just say it: nurses are territorial. Our job is to care for these precious babies, and we take it very seriously. We’ll gladly assist you if what you are asking will benefit the baby. If a nurse feels that the baby doesn’t need to be touched or stimulated, she will let you know. Otherwise, feel free to ask for help moving the baby, moving equipment, or getting the baby settled in the parents’ arms.
8. Don’t forget the details.
If you plan to display these images in a series or blog post, make sure to include items that make the baby’s bed space feel personal. Oftentimes, nurses make footprints or cute name cards, or give the baby a stuffed animal. Siblings draw pictures and grandparents bring in sentimental gifts, such as rosaries or handmade blankets. These details will be the ones that the parents will want to remember.
9. Include the surroundings.
If you are photographing a family in the NICU, it’s probably because they want to remember that particular time in their life. While close-ups are great at highlighting the baby’s tiny fingers and toes, don’t forget to take some wide-angle images of the baby’s bed space, monitors, respiratory support, and isolette or crib. This will reveal the NICU environment and complete your story.
10. Don’t forget that all babies are beautiful!
Depending on the circumstances, NICU babies may have surgical incisions, tubes, deformities or other conditions that don’t look “normal.” There is no normal in the NICU.
NICU babies are often the result of a difficult pregnancy, a long course of infertility treatments, an unexpected delivery or genetic anomalies. You must remember that many of these parents hoped and prayed just to be able to bring a healthy baby into this world to complete their family. Every baby is beautiful in her own way.
This article first appeared in the May/June 2017 issue of Click Magazine. Order your print or digital copy from the Click & Company Store. Or better yet, get a 1-year subscription so you never miss an issue!