You may not be a NICU parent, but you may know one. 10 to 15% of babies born each year in the United States become babies needing to be in the NICU for any length of time. That is roughly 500,000 babies every single year being transported to a NICU either in the same hospital they are born or air/land transported to the nearest available neonatal unit.
I'm not private about the fact that both of my sons (18 months apart) were born prematurely due to pre-eclampsia (along with other factors, makes up 80% of all maternal mortality). Pre-eclampsia is scary enough on it's own for the mother, let alone when the health of her new little baby is also at risk! This disease can take the life of the mother and the baby if it is not caught early and closely monitored by skilled physicians. Thankfully for me and my sons, we were in very good hands from the very beginning. This disease runs in my family and we were already on the lookout before it even reared it's ugly head. However, nothing could have prepared me for the months of being so sick and then delivering my sons (each time) very early via emergency c-section and then the weeks spent in the NICU.
I decided to share some tips for families who may be starting their journey the same way that I did in the hopes that it may reach ONE person and may help. We began our journey in the NICU utterly clueless. It was a blind walk and we did our best and I think we did quite well! If you or even someone you know has delivered a little one and now must face the uncertainty of a stay in the neonatal intensive care unit for any unknown length of time, I hope these tips and nuggets of advice will help you along your journey.
5 TIPS TO HELP NEW NICU FAMILIES
1. TRUST THE STAFF. I know this is a hard one. You just had your baby and those instincts are taking over that you know what is best for your baby and that your baby needs YOU. Yes. He or she does need mama, but right now, there is medicine and science that needs to take over for a brief time to ensure that your little one can be around and be healthy for you to take care of in the coming months. These nurses and doctors truly do wish to give your little baby the absolute best care. It can sometimes seem cold and impersonal the way the doctors make their rounds and the nurses change shift and take on your baby as part of their duty. They move from baby to baby performing the same routine checks and it is a little heart-breaking as a new mother when you see how they handle your new infant. It isn't her baby. It isn't his baby. It's your baby and they do not love your baby the way that you do. This is all true, but this is not going to keep them from taking care of that baby as if it were their own. They take their job so very seriously and even if you do not sense the tender loving care you so wish your baby to feel, remember: this is for a time. This is a season. This is not forever. You will be able to hold your baby soon enough if you haven't been given the chance yet and when you do, he or she will know it is you.
A person's a person no matter how small. - Dr. Seuss
2. DO NOT RUSH IT. I know that sounds harsh and I know because it was me. Twice. If someone had told me to not rush it, I am not sure what I would have done truthfully because all you want to do is get your baby out of there and into the perfectly sculpted nursery and carefully chosen outfits in the comfort of your own home. It is all you want, and yet it is seemingly the furthest thing from possible. There are very real, concrete milestones that your baby MUST meet before they will even think of releasing him or her to go home. There is no way on earth to rush this process. The best thing you can do is let yourself relax into the process and be as helpful as you can to the nurses who are caring for your baby.
3. HELP THE NURSE. Ask the nurse to show you how to do what she is doing. These nurses do not wish for you to sit idly by and watch as she takes your infants temperature, changes the diaper, washes him or her down with a cloth, changes the position etc. It may seem like the nurse wants to come in and do these things just to get it complete but I am telling you, they would like to show you how to do it for yourself so that when the next time comes, you can do it for yourself with her supervision of course. The nurses love to see moms and dads seeking to become involved in the care of the infant. The reason being, soon enough they will be releasing this baby to your sole care and they will feel much more comfortable doing so (and possibly do so sooner) when they know mom and dad can do it on their own. I wish someone had told me this with my first much sooner than when I actually figured it out. Now, this also does depend upon the severity of your little one's condition. Some infants need very specialized care that you will not be able to participate in and I am sure this will be pretty clearly known and discussed. I am talking about the "every 3 hour" vitals check where the nurse comes by to do these routine checks that seem very medical but truthfully are things most moms do at home with their babies. The part that makes it tricky is the wires, the IV's, the monitors and the way it must be done with speed and gentleness so as to not become a setback for your baby.
4. DO NOT BE AFRAID OF YOUR BABY. When you are allowed to have "skin to skin" time, utilize every second of it. Push for it. Ask for it. Do it. Ask for your hospital's lactation specialist to visit you and help you nurse your baby if you have a baby that can do this. Do not give up and think that it's just not going to happen because you are in the NICU. It very well may! It's worth a good solid try, if for no other reason than to bond with your new baby.
Embrace your journey even if it looks different than what you imagined.
5. IF BREAST FEEDING DOESN'T WORK, DON'T SWEAT IT. I would have made this my number one tip, but I wanted to lead up to it. The reason this is so important is because of mom guilt. Mom guilt is quite possibly one of the worst phenomenons to plague new mothers. One of the biggest culprits of mom guilt is the inability to nurse for any plethora or reasons. Many moms of premature babies or babies born with disabilities physically cannot nurse their infant for various reasons and I am here to tell you that is OK. It's not going to feel OK to you but I am here to tell you that I have two incredibly smart, thriving, growing, loving and affectionate sons that are 5 and 6 years old and because of a life-threatening allergy to MY milk, needed specialized medical formula from the ages of 7 weeks on. Premature babies are often born with premature digestive systems and my two little guys were. They are also often born with an inability to swallow and breathe as my two also were. Nursing could cause my sons to have a big emergency. So, until they were able to try, I pumped every 2 hours like clockwork (and through the night) for WEEKS. Let's let that resonate: Every 2 hours for WEEKS. Keep in mind, breast milk often does not "come in" when babies are born prematurely and my milk took many days to do so and even then only very small amounts. I was so determined that my sons would have my milk and all of the goodness that it would afford their little tiny bodies. In my mind, my milk would be the one thing that would heal them and cause them to begin to thrive. Now for a few weeks, before their systems developed, this was the case. The milk I provided through pumping and tube feeding helped them to grow. However, around the time I was able to take them home, at about 2 months of age, their little systems had developed in such a way that they were unable to digest my milk despite any measures taken by me diet and lifestyle wise. After a very serious bout of colitis for my second little guy, we saw a pediatric gastroenterologist and discovered he needed Alimentum formula. This is a very broken down formula that most babies will never need to attempt. However, for my little guy, it saved his life. You can imagine how hard it was for me as a mom to realize that my milk was making my son very sick. Please let my cautionary tale help you in some small way. If it isn't working, it is so very OK. I say that with love and understanding. Your baby will still bond with you in different and equally amazing ways, I promise you. You may not have that automatic, pre-made bonding system set up for you that nature intended, that seemingly requires very little effort for many moms out there. You are going to be surrounded by nursing mothers everywhere you look and the media (oh the media) will tell you there is nothing greater for your baby and almost make you feel like you are doing a disservice to your infant if you do not breastfeed. It does make you wonder if they have taken into consideration the mothers who wanted to nurse and couldn't and how that could make them feel. However, please take it from me as someone who is just as, and maybe even more so in some cases, bonded with my children after bottle feeding them, you and your baby are going to be just fine. I wish I could insert hugs and smiles after that statement because I'm feeling it. I wish I could teach a class to moms out there who couldn't nurse and feel bombarded by the world's pressures! Your little one is going to be just fine on formula and so will you. There are all kinds of awesome benefits to bottle-feeding like daddy being able to take on a middle of the night feeding so you can get some consecutive sleep hours, just to name one! This is my longest tip, because I feel so passionately about helping new parents to not succumb to guilt or pressures, but rather to just take a deep breath and realize that everything that is happening is meant to be and there is a reason and purpose behind it. You may not understand it yet, but one day, maybe not on this side of Heaven, it will all make sense. I can say that because I lived it and I believe it too.
I really believe this and live this.
If you or someone you know would like to reach out to me for more advice or support or just with a random question that I didn't cover in this post, please comment below with your email address and I would love to reach out to you! I believe I have gone through these experiences to help others who are facing the same trials and I would love to talk to you. Thank you for reading my very personal post and taking the time to dive into this pretty difficult and serious topic with me!