Are you ready for a little baseball? Spring is just around the corner, and I can smell the hot dogs and popcorn. Maybe it is the year to go to a warmer climate and enjoy some spring training. Pregnancy can be a little like baseball; we make some plans to enjoy a long-anticipated trip to see our favorite team win it all, and then the unexpected happens. Life throws you a curveball. Your baby is born early and instead of enjoying a hot dog in the stands, it is cold coffee in the neonatal intensive-care unit (NICU). You are understandably confused, stressed and out of your league on coping with a preemie baby in the hospital. The excitement about the baby being here and the need to hold, feed and take care of him or her for more than just a few minutes a day is overwhelming. So how do you cope? What actions can you take? You are ready to hit that home run as a new parent, and being in the batter box on hold is driving you a little crazy.
We have a few tips for to help you navigate this new journey.
First, one of the hardest things in becoming a preemie parent is the feeling of being alone. You are dealing with the issues every new mother faces after childbirth but you are also dealing with all the newness of the NICU. It is essential to remember that even though you may feel alone, many other parents of preemies have traveled this path before you. It is my experience they are happy to share their story and reach out to help in any way. There are some great Facebook groups and Non-Profits that are available for resources and help.
Keep in mind your emotions will likely run all over the field, from feeling frustrated with hospital staff to feeling helpless that you simply can't do more. Then perhaps sadness over the lost days of your pregnancy or the disappointment that your birthing plan did not work out as planned. Guilt, anger, love, and hopelessness are just a few more emotions you may be feeling. The rollercoaster of the NICU is challenging! This is why finding a nurse, social worker, or friend who can help you navigate these feelings is significant. It is essential to communicate how you feel and having people you can talk to is extremely important.
Secondly, take care of yourself. It will take you a few days to adjust to not being pregnant and your baby being in the NICU. Depending on how premature your little one is, your journey could be a long one. No matter how long your preemie’s stay in the NICU is, it is critical to take care of your own health. Take advantage of the fact your preemie is getting the best care possible, so try to get some sleep. You will not have this opportunity when your baby comes home! This is especially important for those mothers who had a C-section. Get all healed up, rest, eat well. You will want to start pumping if breastfeeding is your goal, so self-care is vital. Don't feel guilty about taking care of yourself. A healthy Mom is essential to the health of your baby.
Take time to be with your partner; you are both going through a difficult time and spending time together is very important. You may want to set aside a specific time to spend time together. Taking breaks for a simple dinner out, spending time with friends, or just a walk outside will help your mental health and will be surprisingly refreshing when you get back to the NICU. Making time alone together a priority is vital and will help new parents of any age children be more effective in raising them.
Thirdly, Be as informed and involved as you can. There are some great resources out there! Like I mentioned above, the Non-profits listed in this Blog Post have great information to help parents navigate the NICU journey. Talking with your preemie’s nurses and doctors will also be very important to understand your child’s specific needs. As we all know, there are no two babies alike, so the things your preemie is dealing with may not be the same as the baby in the next room. So try very hard not to compare your preemie with any other preemie. It may be hard when you hear someone else's story. These little preemies are such fighters but they all fight in their own way and on their individual time schedule.
Ask the nurses how you can be involved in your preemie's care. Change the diapers, help with a sponge bath if possible, decorate the room to make it your own and when clothing is permitted, bring it in and enjoy! I was told by nurses many years ago that a parent putting clothes on their baby is more than just the need for clothing. It gives some normalcy to an abnormal situation and allows for more connection between parent and baby. This also happens with Kangaroo care, and babies are shown to thrive more when these types of relationships happen. Talking, reading and just being there will be heard and felt by your baby. We suggest sleeping with a small blanket and then bring it to your preemie’s isolate is an excellent way for them to smell Mom's scent.
Some other suggestions to do during your NICU stay is to document it with a journal and pictures. Recording the milestones that your preemie reaches is will help you stay positive and hopeful. There may be many hard days in the NICU, so when your little one does hit one out of the park, grab it with a picture. It is always amazing to look back and see how far your preemie has come. I love seeing photos that inspire other preemie parents to see how far another little fighter has progressed!
Fourthly, set boundaries. You will need to start this as soon as your preemie is born. I am sure there will be grandparents, siblings, friends, and others who will want to visit or hear how your preemie is doing. You will want to come up with an easy way to keep friends and family members informed. Setting up a social media profile, email group, or phone tree will help you not answer the same questions a million times.
The hospital visitation requirements may help you establish these boundaries but start with what you are comfortable with. You need this special time with your preemie. Beginning now when you are in the hospital will help when you bring your preemie home. Preemies need extra sleep and care, so having lots of visitors will not be helpful. The need to keep germs away is also critical, especially during RSV season. I love that saying about visiting at 2am is a good time! Then they can help with the feeding, and you can get a little more needed sleep! Don't hesitate to let someone do all the grocery shopping, cooking and extra help you can. I guarantee that will be extremely helpful!
You are now a parent, and you are in the big leagues. The only problem is this little one didn't come with instructions! From my experience, here is a few pieces of advice. You will never say, "I wish I didn't hold my baby that long!" it will sound more like, "If I could redo, I would hold them longer!" The housework will always be there, but your babies will only be little once. No matter what you do, time marches on, and you will wish for more of it. Enjoy every minute because this is the best game of your life.