by Sarah Lyons
Parents dream of that unforgettable moment when they hold their newborn baby in their arms for the first time. When Vicki Moore gave birth to a full-term, 8 pound, 12 ounce baby boy, she had no idea he would end up spending a week in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU).
“When you pack your hospital bag, you take for granted that you will give birth and be released the following day,” she said. “We did not expect to be in the NICU seven days.”
Each year, 10-15% of babies born in the U.S. are admitted to the NICU due to premature birth, heart defects, infection, or breathing irregularities. Soon after the birth of Vicki Moore’s son, they discovered he had a congenital heart defect and that he had been having neonatal seizures. He would need to be admitted to the NICU until he was stable.
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. In the US alone, roughly half a million babies are admitted to the NICU each year; therefore, to be best prepared, it is wise to educate yourself. The true experts are parents who have been through the experience. The information they share gives you a glimpse into what you can really expect during a NICU stay. Here are some of the most valuable tips.
Visiting your child in the NICU for the first time will be emotional, shocking even. Your baby will typically be surrounded by equipment that is beeping and flashing, they might be covered in wires, and may look tiny and fragile. Feelings of intimidation about caring for them are normal. 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 their medical equipment.
“I tried to do as much as I could to be involved,” Moore said. “A lovely nurse really pushed this and let us take temperatures, bathe his eyes and mouth, and change his diaper.”
The more parents get involved, the more they bond with the child and begin to feel comfortable as a parent 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 are released.
“Don’t put a timeframe on how long you expect them to be there,” said Nikki Rhyme, mother of 2-year-old triplets. “They will come home when they are ready.”
Katie Bain, whose daughter was born at 23 weeks gestation, said to never give up 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 said.
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 their own,” she said.
Take Care of Yourself
Filled with concern for baby’s health, it is easy to forget that mom has just given birth, often by emergency C-section and possibly after weeks of bed rest. Eating healthy and regular meals, staying hydrated, and getting adequate rest are 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,” Moore said.
It is normal to feel overwhelmed, sad and helpless in this situation and parents need to ask for help when needed.
“Tell your friends and family you’re struggling and you need support,” said Rachel Watts of Belton, MO.
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 childcare 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 that can help work through emotions that go along with the NICU experience.
“Ask for help and support as you need it,” said Jessica Craine, mother of twins. “This can be an emotional roller coast 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 regret not documenting the time. Keep a journal in the room to take note of baby’s first bath, first time they wore clothes, and when they moved from an incubator to a crib.
“Ask the nurses to update the journal with weight and stats each shift,” said Hilary Thompson of Clay Center, KS.
Although it is hard to see your baby fighting in the NICU, many parents cherish photos of their NICU time because they are proof of how far their amazing and strong child has come.
Work as a Team
“Remember you are part of your child’s medical team and that you all have the same goal,” said Jennifer Wilson of Kansas City, MO.
The NICU staff’s main goal is the health and wellbeing of your child, but the parent plays a big part in their care as well.
“Remember they are your babies, and you have a voice in how things go,” said triplet mom Michelle Glasser. “Don’t be afraid to ask questions.”
NICU Doctors Save Lives
“I wasn’t prepared for some of the things we saw, and neither was my husband,” said Jenna Mrnak of Bowman, ND. “We could see the doctors working on babies to save their lives. Incredibly heartbreaking.”
NICU doctors are truly saving the lives of babies on a daily basis. Currently the survival rate for NICU babies in the US is 98%. Thirty years ago, that number was closer to 25%. While heartbreaking to witness, the statistics are encouraging, and there’s comfort in the knowledge that miracles happen there.
It Will End
“Our son came home as normal as any other baby his age,” Moore said. “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.
“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,” said Jennifer Pena of Atlanta, GA.
Two years ago, when I found out I was expecting triplets, I was told it was highly likely they would spend time in the NICU due to premature birth. I was so grateful to other parents for sharing their knowledge and encouragement with me as our family faced that challenging time. Our NICU experiences were one of the most difficult seasons my family has walked through. Even so, I find myself looking back on it fondly because I am more aware of how miraculous life is. It is a stressful place to be, but the NICU staff is there to do everything possible to get your baby well and home with your family.