I was calm as I packed my bags for the hospital. This was our second child, so I knew just what to expect and considered myself a veteran. I had already heard every “tip” there was to know.
Labor was a breeze compared to the first go round. The doctor laid our baby on my chest, and we cried many happy tears for our healthy baby boy. The pediatrician came in for the initial exam, and our perfect story ended. “Nurse, I think we have a problem,” he said matter-of-factly. Our son was immediately placed into an incubator and whisked away to NICU (neonatal intensive care unit). In those first moments of our son’s life, the moments when we were supposed to be bonding, nursing skin-to-skin, and posting pictures of “one big happy family,” I was left alone in the delivery room with a numbness that I couldn’t differentiate between drugs and shock.
The next four weeks were a total blur.
NICU is hard. It is painful and downright exhausting. It is an unexpected, yet necessary reality for a variety of abnormal birth stories. Only recently, nearly a year and a half later, have I been able to step back and smile at our journey during those tough weeks. Looking back at our time spent in the NICU, there are 7 crucial survival tips that I can offer to NICU parents:
#1 – CRY
Let it out…it’s completely natural. No parent dreams of their child being in the hospital, connected to wires and monitors that beep, or being told when they can and cannot hold their baby. So yes, you have the right to cry.
#2 – Recover
You just gave birth, and some even experience C-sections. Spend time in your own room to recover. When you’re in the NICU, sit down. Ask for a comfortable chair to sit bedside. Lower the baby’s bed to your level. Whatever you do, remember that you must take care of yourself.
#3 – Skin-to-Skin
Depending on the situation, you may or may not be able to hold your baby. Ask. If it’s not possible for the time being, there is a reason. Do what you can for now. Place your hands on your baby. Whisper, read books, and sing so they know you are there. Use felt circles if your NICU has them. If not, buy some felt at a local fabric store and cut it into ~4 inch circles. Keep one in your bra at all times, and place them in the baby’s bed. Swapping them out helps your baby learn and recognize your scent when you cannot hold them.
#4 – Pump, Pump, Pump!
Nurse when you can in the NICU, and when you are away, pump. Take pictures of your baby, and look at those images while you do. Guzzle water…all day long! Most NICUs have the high-powered hospital grade pumps. Ask where they are located, and what the protocol is for using them. Our hospital allowed me to check one out for free and use it at home for 4 weeks. Take advantage of this, as those pumps will help to increase milk supply when you’re unable to nurse.
#5 – Take a Break & Rest
As a parent, we want to be with our children sun up to sun down. However, hospitals are exhausting for everyone, so don’t forget to take care of yourself. Trust the professionals. They are trained and licensed to care for your baby. Get fresh air and take a walk around the block. Go get some food. Go home, or to the Ronald McDonald House, and sleep in a bed. Store the number of the NICU in your phone, and call to check in. But for the sake of your sanity, take a break outside of hospital walls.
#5 – Join Online Support Groups
Whatever the reason may be for your NICU stay, there are others in this world who are experiencing similar situations. Search Facebook for support groups. Connecting with others sharing similar experiences will be your saving grace during days when you feel lost. As your child grows, so do these online support groups. They continue to be an outlet, when you sometimes feel as if no one else understands.
#7 – Breathe & Capture the Moment
Just close your eyes and breathe. What feels like an eternity right now, is only a moment in time. Don’t be afraid to take pictures! NICU is a dark hole that many do not want to remember, but at the end of the day, it is the first leg of your child’s journey in life. Be proud of this journey, and don’t forget to capture it – because someday, your tiny baby will be grown and want to see!