Many moms-to-be dream of the moment they’ll finally hold their newborns in their arms, but for some that joy is short-lived when complications necessitate a detour to the neonatal intensive care unit (more commonly known as the NICU).
When Vicki Moore of Norfolk, England, gave birth to a full-term, 8-pound, 12-ounce baby boy, she had no idea that soon after delivery the doctors would discover her son had been having neonatal seizures caused by a congenital heart defect. He would need to be admitted to the NICU until he was stable.
“When you pack your hospital bag, you take for granted that you will give birth and be released the following day,” Moore says. “We did not expect to be in the NICU seven days.”
While parents do a lot to prepare for the birth of a child, learning about the NICU is typically not on the to-do list. But the fact remains: In the U.S. alone, roughly half a million babies are admitted to the NICU each year. Although every mother hopes her little one won’t have to leave her side, it’s best to be prepared just in case. And who better to share what it’s like (and how to handle it) than the mamas and papas who’ve gone through it before?
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Visiting your child in the NICU for the first time will be emotional, even shocking. Your baby will likely be surrounded by equipment that is beeping and flashing, she could be covered in wires, and she might look startlingly tiny and fragile.
Feelings of intimidation about caring for her are completely normal, but bonding with your babe is important. Ask the nurses how you can get involved in your child’s care. They are usually more than willing to teach you how to work around the medical equipment.
“I tried to do as much as I could,” recalls Moore. “A lovely nurse really pushed this and let us take temperatures, bathe his eyes and mouth, and change his diaper.” The more moms and dads get involved, the more they bond with their new arrival—and the sooner they begin to feel comfortable as parents of a NICU baby.
Don’t give up hope
The rule of thumb is that babies born prematurely will typically go home around their due date; however, this is not always the case. NICU babies have to learn to breathe, eat, suck, swallow and maintain their own body temperature before they can be released.
“Don’t put a time frame on how long you expect them to be there,” says Nikki Rhyme, a mom of 2-year-old triplets in Holiday, Florida. “They will come home when they are ready.”
Katie Bain, a Kansas mom whose daughter was born at 23 weeks’ gestation, reminds parents to never lose hope. “When given statistics of survival rate or chances of your baby having one of many major health concerns or developmental delays, it can be hard to stay positive.” She recommends seeking out online support groups and blogs that are filled with positive outcomes. “Read the success stories, and hold tight to the hope that one day your baby will have one of [her] own.”
Take care of yourself
When you’re filled with concern for your newborn’s health, it’s easy to forget that you have just given birth—often by emergency C-section and possibly after weeks of bed rest. Eating healthy, regular meals, staying hydrated, and getting adequate rest are all key to recovering and handling the stress that the NICU experience often creates.
“Accept how you are feeling, and do not feel guilty for feelings of resentment, anger or blame,” encourages Moore. It is normal to feel overwhelmed, sad and helpless in this situation, and parents should ask for help when needed. “Tell your friends and family you’re struggling and you need support,” says Rachel Watts, a mom of one in Belton, Missouri. Many times they want to help, but they won’t know what to do unless you ask. Give them specific tasks that will make your life easier, like preparing a meal for your family, helping with child care for older children or doing a load of laundry.
Talk through your feelings with others and seek professional advice if needed. Many hospitals have social workers on staff who can help you work through the emotions that come with a NICU experience. “Ask for help and support as you need it,” suggests Jessica Craine, a mother of twins in Olathe, Kansas. “This can be an emotional roller coaster that nothing can prepare you for.”
Document this special time
When your child is in the NICU, it can be easy to get caught up in your surroundings. Many parents focus so much on getting their little one out of the NICU that they forget to capture the memories of those earliest days. It might not be the first family photo you imagined, but it’s special in its own right.
Keep a journal in the room to take note of baby’s first bath, the first time she wore clothes, and when she moved from an incubator to a crib. Those are all big milestones for your growing babe. “Ask the nurses to update the journal with weight and stats each shift,” suggests Hilary Thompson, a mom of four in Clay Center, Kansas.
Although it is hard to see your tiny baby fighting in the NICU, many parents cherish photos of their NICU time because they are proof of how far their amazing children have come.
Work as a team
“Remember you are part of your child’s medical team and that you all have the same goal,” says Jenifer Wilson, a mom of one in Kansas City, Missouri. The doctors and nurses are on your side; they’re working to give your baby the healthiest start at life—just like you are. Take comfort in that fact, but don’t forget that you play a big part in your child’s care as well. “They are your babies, and you have a voice in how things go,” says Michelle Glasser, a mom of triplets in Spokane, Washington. “Don’t be afraid to ask questions.”
Recognize that NICU doctors save lives
“I wasn’t prepared for some of the things we saw, and neither was my husband,” says Jenna Mrnak, a mom of four in Bowman, North Dakota. “We could see the doctors working on babies to save their lives. [It was] incredibly heartbreaking.”
NICU doctors perform rescue missions on a daily basis. Currently the survival rate for NICU babies in the U.S. is 98 percent. Thirty years ago that number was closer to 25 percent. Although it’s difficult to watch any infant—whether it’s your child or someone else’s—go through complications, the statistics are encouraging, and there’s comfort in the knowledge that miracles happen in the NICU.
Know it will end
“Our son came home as normal as any other baby his age,” encourages Moore. “He was feeding well, putting on weight, and keeping us up all night. Minus the sleep deprivation of any new parent, we loved it.” Her son went on to have lifesaving open-heart surgery six months later, but there is no denying his time in the NICU was key to his survival as well.
Each day in the NICU seems like an eternity, but when your child comes home and the years go by, it fades into a distant memory. As Jennifer Pena, a mom of four in Atlanta, assures, “It seems like it is a never-ending experience—regardless of [whether] it’s five days or five months—but it will be a thing of the past before you know it.”
Two years ago, when I found out I was having triplets, I was told it was highly likely that they would spend time in the NICU due to premature birth. I was so grateful to other parents for sharing their knowledge and encouragement as our family faced that challenging time. Although it was a difficult season, I find myself looking back on it fondly. After all, it made me acutely aware of how miraculous life is.