The arrival of a new baby is a time of joy and excitement, but what about when the unexpected happens? Most pregnancies are uneventful and end in a healthy baby, but sometimes a baby can be born sick or premature. Premature babies and babies with health problems at birth spend their first days, weeks or even months in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit also known as the NICU.
The NICU is full of flashing lights, beeping monitors, and medical professionals speaking in complicated medical jargon and acronyms. The NICU is the last place you expect to be after the birth of your baby and it can be difficult to deal with.
My third pregnancy was a twin pregnancy and I was only 26 weeks and 3 days pregnant with my twins when they were born. My daughter weighed 1 lb., 10oz and my son weighed 2lbs. They subsequently spend the next three months of their lives in the NICU.
Here are some of the things that helped get me through the NICU:
1. Learn everything that you possibly can, but not until you need it.
IVH, PVH, PDA, NEC, PROM, RDS, ROP. The list of acronyms goes on and on and every one of them sounds very scary. In addition to having to learn what all these letters mean, each one of them has different grades and a litany of possible complications that your baby may or may not experience. If you try to learn them all, you will not only be thoroughly confused, but quite possibly, extremely terrified.
My advice to NICU mom’s is to get a really good, but easy to read book about the NICU and all that comes with it. Some NICU’s have their own library of books that you can borrow. Once you find a book that is appropriate to your specific circumstance, read only the sections that pertain to your baby’s current diagnosis. Knowledge is always a good thing, but in an emotionally charged situation, too much information can make you crazy.
2. Make an NICU friend.
The NICU is full of Mom’s and Dad’s just like you. Don’t be afraid to reach out to someone and just start talking. Chances are, you will find someone with a situation that is very similar to yours. During my NICU experience, I found it helpful and comforting to talk to other people that were dealing with the same things that I was dealing with. The support of your family and friends is paramount but as much as they love and support you, if they have never had a sick baby or a preemie, they can never fully understand the NICU experience.
3. Look at your baby, not the monitor.
While your baby is in the NICU, he will be hooked up to many machines, one of which monitors your baby’s temperature, blood pressure, heart rate, respirations and blood oxygen level. These are all very important things for your baby’s Drs. and nurses to know but a Mom doesn’t need to scrutinize these vital signs. It’s an easy trap to fall into. I found myself on more than a few occasions watching the numbers go up and down, as they will. Try not to do it. Spend your time in the NICU looking at your beautiful baby, not the monitor screen, leave that to the professionals.
4. Pump your breast milk or breastfeed.
Studies have shown that breast milk is the best food for any baby, but especially one that was born premature or sick. Breast milk is living tissue and contains stem cells that are crucial to brain development. NICU babies that receive pumped Mother’s Milk have less instance of NEC (Necrotizing Enterocolitis) as compared with formula fed babies. Breast milk also contains natural antioxidants and immunoglobulins that cannot be duplicated in formula. Your breast milk is made specifically for your baby, it knows your baby’s needs and effectively takes over where the placenta left off.
5. Make friends with the nurses, Drs.
Introduce yourself to every person who comes in contact with your baby. The NICU can be a scary place and it can be easy to feel inferior or intimidated by the machines and people around you and your baby. Make sure that every Dr. and nurse knows you and knows that you want to be involved in the care and treatment of your baby. Although they are the medical professionals, you know your baby best. You are your baby’s best advocate.
6. Ask questions. Demand answers.
In my experience, Drs. seem to forget that not all of us possess a medical degree. Sometimes information is given so quickly and in such a way that it can leave you more confused than ever. If you don’t understand something, ask! Never be ashamed to ask a Dr. or a nurse to explain something in a simpler way. I’ve even asked for pictures and diagrams to be drawn for me.
No, not the animal! Kangaroo care is a type of bonding exercise for a Mother and her baby. As long as your baby is stable, there is no reason why you and your baby couldn’t participate in this activity. Kangaroo care is a method of holding your baby skin to skin on your chest while in a comfortable sitting position. The baby is undressed down to a diaper and placed on the Mothers (or Fathers) bare chest and both are covered with a blanket. A study conducted by the Cleveland Clinic foundation discovered many benefits of Kangaroo Care.
“The benefits of kangaroo care to the baby include:
• Stabilization of the baby’s heart rate
• Improved (more regular) breathing pattern
• Improved oxygen saturation levels (an indicator of how well oxygen is being delivered to all the infants’ organs and tissues)
• Gain in sleep time
• More rapid weight gain
• Decreased crying
• More successful breastfeeding
• Earlier hospital discharge.
It’s also a wonderful way to spend some bonding time with your baby who is not able to be home with you yet.
8. Change your baby’s diaper.
Give her sponge baths, take her temperature, do all the things that you would do if she was at home with you. Even while in the NICU, she is still your baby! Most nurses will be happy to teach you the correct way to maneuver around any tubes or IV’s that your baby may have. Having a sick or tiny baby is frightening and can often leave the parents feeling like outsiders. Participating in the simple daily care of your baby allows you to feel more involved. You may not be able to tend to her medical needs but you can change her diaper.
9. Expect backslides.
“Two steps forward, one step back.” It’s the mantra of the NICU. Sick or premature babies have a real fight on their hands. With each treatment or triumph, there is the possibility for a step backwards. Almost every treatment that sustains your baby’s life has risks and side effects. Remember that as your baby grows and gets stronger, the backslides will occur less and less.
10. Keep a journal.
Your journal could be detailed and complex or as simple as notes on a calendar. Write down each days little milestones. The NICU can be a long and difficult road and being able to look back and see how far your baby has come can be very comforting.
11. Stay positive.
As impossible as it sounds, a positive attitude can go a long way towards keeping you sane. Staying positive keeps you calmer and will allow you to think more clearly.
12. Let yourself laugh.
Yes, laugh. Have dinner in the Hospital Cafeteria with some other NICU Moms and make fun of the nurse that no one likes. Giggle about some of the ridiculous or inappropriate comments that well-meaning friends or family members have made while trying to be “helpful”. It’s easy to forget what it feels like to just be a person when you become a “NICU Mom”. It’s okay to allow yourself to relax and laugh, your baby won’t mind at all!
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