In the final weeks of my pregnancy, I was informed that my baby boy would need open-heart surgery. We were advised that he would spend at least two weeks in neonatal intensive hospital (NICU) and be hooked up to wires and other machines. Instead of taking him home immediately after his birth, to nurse and cuddle him, and to introduce him to his big sibling. I was terrified and crushed. My little boy arrived with a better prognosis than I expected. He did not require immediate surgery and spent just one week in the NICU. This is a far cry from the months and long weeks that many families go through. For expert advice on how to deal with a baby who is in intensive care, read on.
Do your research. Do your research. There are many NICUs. You want to ensure that your baby is comfortable and well-cared for. Liza Gene Cooper, director of Family Centered Care and Family Engagement at March of Dimes, said, “Not all NICUs will be the same.” Call to learn more about NICU policies. Ask questions like “Can parents spend time together with their babies 24/7?” Ask questions such as “Can parents spend time with their babies 24/7?” and “Can older siblings visit?” Schedule a tour.
Expect to experience a variety of emotions. It can be overwhelming to feel a variety of emotions once your baby is born. While many well-meaning relatives and friends will encourage you to remain positive and strong, it’s OK to feel disappointed and jealous for moms who have had their babies without any complications. Janna Wrench, Greenfield, WI, whose twins spent 69 days and 112 days in the NICU, after they arrived three months early last autumn, says that you may go through a period of mourning.
Create a support network. It can be hard to find friends and family members who have never experienced a sick baby. You may find a group that caters to parents of babies in the NICU at your hospital. Cooper suggests asking the hospital to arrange a pizza night for parents or an informal group to have refreshments with them. If you’d prefer to connect one-on-one, approach another parent while waiting in an elevator or in a family lounge. You can also join an online community like the March of Dimes’ shareyourstory.org.
Get started bonding immediately. Even though your baby is in an incubator, you can still form strong bonds with her. You can ask to change her diaper or give her a bath when she is able. You can read your children’s favorite books to her. A 2011 study published in the Journal of Developmental & Behavioral Pediatrics revealed that parents who read to their infants at the NICU felt closer and more likely to carry on the storytime tradition when they return home. While time spent in the NICU may not be something parents want, it is an important part of a baby’s development. Sarah Date of Woonsocket (RI) says, “Bring a camera, and take photos of everything.” Sarah Date was the mother of two daughters who spent time in NICUs. This is part of the story of your child.
Learn about your baby’s doctors. My son’s health was changing rapidly and I wanted to keep track of it. To help me answer all my questions, I was at his bedside during morning rounds. Although it can be intimidating to watch eight doctors rush into a room spewing out medical jargon and indecipherable numbers, it is also comforting to know your child is in good hands. Ask the doctor to explain things to you in layman’s terms, or draw you a picture. Date suggests that you call at least a half an hour ahead to find out when nurses are changing shifts. This will ensure that you get the full scoop from the nurse who spent the entire day with your baby, not the one who took the report.
Take care of your body. While you will want to spend as much time with your baby as possible in the NICU’s, you must also take care of yourself so that you can provide for him. To manage stress, get as much sleep and exercise as you can. Healthy snacks such as fruit, granola bars and packets oatmeal can be packed and taken with you. Ask the nurses about the best dining options in the hospital or nearby.
Breastfeeding is a must. Most babies in NICU receive their nutrients via a tube. You may need to wait to breastfeed. However, you can build up your milk supply as soon as your baby is born if you want to nurse later. You can practice kangaroo (snuggling your baby from skin to skin) or pump at your baby’s side. If you are unable to be there for your baby, it can be helpful to smell his pajamas and listen to his cries. Recent research published in Advances in Neonatal Care found that mothers in NICU who pumped while listening and viewing baby photos, as well as listening to guided relaxation recordings, were able get twice or three times the milk than moms in the control group.
Support older siblings in coping. Your children should explain to their older sibling why they must remain in the hospital. Make sure you have time to spend each day with them, so they don’t get lost. Don’t forget about finding support resources for them. My 3-year-old daughter was given a tour by the child-life specialist at our hospital. She showed her the toy/book cart, a hospital mask, and gave us a book explaining why my baby needed heart surgery.
Accepting help from others is a good thing. Websites like mealtrain.com and lotsahelpinghands.com can help organize the efforts of friends and family members. Do not be afraid to ask for help, even if it is a bedover for an older sibling. Be aware that you will not be able drive after a C-section. You’ll need to take someone with you to the hospital.
You are free to define boundaries. Although the NICU has its own rules regarding visitation, you can set your own stricter standards. Are you comfortable with someone holding your baby other than yourself or your spouse? It’s fine to say no to anyone, even grandparents. Don’t be ashamed to limit visitors after you’ve left the hospital.
Make your home a place you call home. If you are allowed to, place family photos around the baby’s incubator. Also, bring a small lovey, or colorful swaddling cloth. Dress your baby in cute outfits you got from your baby shower. Date said that it is hard to ignore the beeps and monitors but she tried. You can also ask if you are able to turn off the loud bedside screens. Nurses monitor babies in a central location. It might not be the nursery that you had in mind for your baby, but it is temporary. The homecoming will be even sweeter when you can finally get out the car seat and change into your baby’s go-home outfit.