The first lesson is accepting that you will feel scared and out of control most of the time. No matter how many or how few days you will spend in the NICU, you did not prepare for this. You may have started reading books or blogs on pregnancy and parenting ahead of time, but preparing for a stay in the NICU is not usually included in that research.
Secondly, it is very helpful to think of your time in the NICU as a marathon, not a sprint. It can be a very long “race” and it is important to run it at a pace you can both endure and keep up for the duration. Remember the parable of the tortoise and the hare. Slow and steady wins the race.
Third, you will find an inner strength you may not have been aware you possessed. This experience will change you like you never expected. You will need to be strong and you WILL BE strong! One of the hardest things you may first encounter is the fact you might not hold your baby right away. You may first meet your little one through the walls of an isolete, with possibly many wires and tubes attached. You may not feel that immediate attachment because seeing your baby for the first time is not supposed to look like this. It is okay to cry and grieve! You have lost something; the last months of your pregnancy, a drama free labor and delivery, and the peace of a healthy baby snuggled up next to you. On top of the NICU experience and the hard realization of having a medically fragile baby, you are dealing with postpartum and a surge of hormones. So go ahead and have a great big cry — I guarantee you will feel better. Do not be surprised when other emotions start to sneak in, like jealousy. When you hear other babies cry or that bell that goes off when another baby is born or when you see a full-term healthy baby. These emotions may surprise you, but talking with a nurse, social worker, or family member can be very helpful. Also, realize this is a process. Remember, marathon, not a sprint! Turtle, turtle...slow, steady.
Other NICU Thoughts & Tips
You will first notice that the NICU is noisy; depending on your hospital, there might be many incubators in one big room. Our local NICU has been recently updated and they have individual rooms for each patient and family. No matter how yours is set up, it will probably still be noisy with obnoxious alarms going off, literally, every few seconds. The consistent beep will play in your head long after you leave the NICU. Soon you will learn what each sound indicates and which ones to be concerned over and which ones are just annoying! Before you know it, you will fall into a routine of visiting your baby and getting to know the medical staff. You will soon learn many medical terms you had never heard before. I wrote a blog post, The A-Z's of the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit, which can be a great resource.
You will most likely find one or two NICU nurses to be your favorites and find them precious resources. Keep in mind that asking questions is very good! You need to understand the medical procedures being performed on your preemie. Knowing what is going on and how you can best help or be involved is very important. You may see something the nurses are too busy to notice. They will have multiple babies to take care of and you only have your little one to keep an eye on. You will want to learn the schedule of shift changes and try to allow the staff time to "do their thing.” Your contact and presence are critical to the well-being of your infant. The sound of your voice, your touch and kangaroo care will help your baby thrive in the NICU. More importantly, you can be part of your preemie being able to go home sooner.
When your preemie is released from the NICU, you may not be done with doctor visits. There might be specialists and additional visits to your pediatrician. If you are a working Mom, you might want to consider these things when scheduling your maternity leave. If it looks like your baby is going to spend several weeks in the NICU, you may want to go back to work while your preemie is being taken care of by great medical professionals and save your time-off for when your preemie comes home. Then follow-up appointments and the like would not be as challenging to attend.
An essential key to your baby’s well being is taking care of yourself. Your preemie is being cared for by the best medical professionals, so not being at the NICU 24/7 is definitely acceptable. You need to rest and recover so when your preemie does come home, you are ready to take over. That sleep will be in short supply with laundry and other chores on the increase! You will also be busy screening family and friends wanting to see the new family member. This is where your newfound strength may come in handy. A prewritten script might be a good idea. “Do you have the sniffles or a cold? Does anyone in your family that you have been exposed to?” I guess after this last year, some of these questions are a little easier to ask. Germs are especially concerning for preemies; after all, they have just spent days or weeks in a very sterile environment. Everyone else is a giant germ bag to your preemie, so if someone is visiting, make sure they wash their hands! All you can do is use your best judgment. Unless you have a tunnel leading from your house to the pediatrician, specialist or grocery store, you will eventually need to take the baby out into the world.
There are many Preemie parenting groups on Facebook, and other social media platforms; I would suggest joining these so you feel a sense of community. You will also learn so much from the experience and wisdom gained by others who have gone before you.
In the end, it does not matter how many days you spend in the NICU; this experience will make an impact on your life. Hopefully, that scared Mom, who recently entered the NICU for the first time, is more patient and stronger than ever. She may be the perfect person to help a new NICU Mom find her way around this loud, unfamiliar place.
The only guarantee on this journey is you will be changed as a person by the end of it. You will also have met the strongest fighter in the world — your preemie!