Nothing could have prepared me for the reality that my baby would be born at 24 weeks. My son resembled a small doll weighing 1 pound, 8 ounces and measuring only 12.5 inches In a flurry of activity, my son was whisked away to the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU) while I was wheeled into a postpartum room sans bassinet and baby supplies. My empty arms ached as I watched other mothers cradling their bundles and getting ready to bring their babies home; while I left the hospital armed with my suitcase and a breast pump.
Having a baby head to the NICU can be extremely difficult on parents, especially postpartum women who may be highly emotional. The parents regret that they did not get that same bonding time in the first few hours and days of their baby's life. If they aren't staying near the hospital where their baby is being cared for, they are looking at daily commutes back and forth to the NICU only to go home to an empty nursery.
Regardless of the severity of your child's diagnosis, having a baby in the NICU can be a long road filled with many highs and lows. Here are a few tips to help you survive the NICU.
Ask Questions – In order to successfully advocate for your child and to fully understand their diagnosis, make sure you ask the medical staff all the questions that pop in your head. What medicines is my baby taking? Why does my baby have an IV? What are the alarms that keep going off? What tests have been done today? You may find the information is becoming too much for you to remember. I found it was a good idea to keep a notebook where I recorded information about my son's care. When I thought of a question at 2am, I could jot it in the notebook so I wouldn't forget. This is a good way to help organize your thoughts and stay focused.
Know the NICU Schedule – The medical staff in the NICU was nothing but accommodating, but they need time to get their work done too. Find out what time shift changes occur. I was not allowed to be present during shift changes or rounds, mostly for privacy reasons. The medical staff needs to be able to discuss all the patients freely and determine a course of action for the day. Each shift, find out which nurse will be in charge of your child's care so you know who to address concerns to. Write down the phone number so that you can call to get updates when you are not able to be at the NICU. I had this phone number memorized after a few weeks of dialing it multiple times a day. Ask what time and how often your baby gets fed? Once you know what the NICU routine is, it will make it easier for you to plan your time there.
Learn the Rules – Where do you scrub in? You will become quite accustomed to the smell of antibacterial soap. Does the NICU allow visitors and do they need wristbands? Can siblings visit? Are you allowed to bring in stuffed animals or clothing? Where is breast milk stored? If you want to be present during feeding time, bath time, or weighing, find out your baby's schedule and see if you can help with your baby's care. Once my son was taking a bottle, I would inform the staff when I would be in so that they knew to wait for me for his feeding.
Touch – Touch your baby as much and as often as you can. Preemies prefer a firm touch. Place your hand on your baby's back and cup their head or hold onto their hand. Ask if you can hold your baby skin to skin. Preemies benefit from kangaroo care. Don't get down on yourself if your baby cannot tolerate being held for long periods of time. This in no way reflects your ability as a mother. The first time I held my son, he barely even tolerated a minute in my arms. It took him weeks before I was able to hold him for a half hour at a time.
Rent a Hospital Grade Breast Pump – If you plan to breast feed your child, look into renting a hospital grade breast pump, given that you won't have a newborn to stimulate your milk production 24 hours a day. Some hospitals will lend breast pumps to mothers of NICU patients. If your hospital doesn't offer that option, be sure to invest in a high quality, double pump. Some health insurance policies may cover the costs of borrowing a pump or investing in one.
Be Realistic – After sitting around in a hospital for days on end, instead of in your living room with your baby, you are likely not to be in the best of spirits. It is okay to feel sad and lonely. However, if you believe you're feeling overly emotional be sure to speak with your OB/GYN. If someone offers to help you with meals or laundry, take them up on it. Remember to take care of yourself as you are still healing from childbirth.
The time spent in the NICU with your infant will seem like an eternity. After 94 days in the NICU, I was able to bring my son home. Now, he is an active and healthy one year old who continues to amaze us every day.