Recently, a friend of mine had a baby. She had a textbook pregnancy and gave birth right on schedule to an almost nine-pound baby. It should have been the happiest day of her life.
But it wasn’t.
At some point during the delivery or before, the baby inhaled meconium and developed an infection. Instead of cuddling her new little one in her arms, the mom and dad were frantically driving to a hospital in a larger city as their new baby was airlifted to their Neonatal Intensive Care Unit, or NICU for short.
How do families deal with having their dreams deferred by a side trip to the NICU? How can you prepare for an experience like that? How can you help a friend of family member that is looking at their baby through a plastic crib cover?
Feel your feelings.
Don’t put your emotions on hold, it will only add to your stress, and dealing with the demands of a fragile infant while trying to heal from childbirth is tough enough. You will feel fear for your baby. You will feel fear for yourself. Not only that, but the NICU is a bright, loud area filled with people that are rushing from one patient to another while cribs and monitors beep, whoosh and flash. Talk about sensory overload! Throw in the normal hormonal changes that happen after childbirth and you have a perfect emotional storm. So if you feel like crying; cry. If you feel angry, talk about it with your partner. If you still need help dealing with your feelings, ask to speak to a chaplain, counselor or social worker at the hospital. This is why they work at a hospital.
Take care of yourself.
As a new mom, you are still healing from childbirth. Take the time your body needs. You don’t have to spend every minute glued to a chair in the NICU. Find out if the hospital has family rooms, or where the closest hotel might be and get a room. Talk with our partner about taking turns with the baby so that you both can sleep undisturbed. Don’t just live on bad coffee and vending room fare, take the time to seek out healthy meals and even splurge on a comfort meal from time to time. The truth is, while your baby is in the NICU, you have the best help possible. Talk to the nurses and schedule times for you to get the breaks you need to heal and recharge. After all, when your baby goes home, you will one busy mama.
Create a routine.
Hospitals run on routine. There is a schedule for everything from medication to therapy. You will find that you must learn to adapt to the hospital’s routine quickly. But it won’t fill your entire day. The quicker you are able to establish a routine, the quicker the hospital staff will know when to call you and when you will be available. A routine gives you a sense of control in a time when so much is out of your control.
Don’t be at your phone’s beck and call.
Of course you will want to talk to family and close friends. But your personal struggle doesn’t mean you have to take 45 minutes of advice from your best friend’s cousin once removed. Many hospitals limit phone calls for good reasons. The last thing you want is to miss talking to a doctor because you were down the hall on the phone. Instead, set up a social media page, a hospital communication page or a simple blog to keep friends and well-wishers up to date and free your time.
It may sound silly, but you may need to document this time. You can always put them in a file that you don’t look at very often. But this is important. The truth is, every child deserves to be celebrated. Every life is precious. When your child grows up, he may want to see how hard everyone worked to take care of him as a baby. The truth is, some children who spend time in the NICU struggle throughout their childhood. It can be a great reminder of how far she has come.
Make a plan.
The only thing scarier than seeing your child in the NICU is the thought of taking your child home. A child who is fragile in the hospital may still be fragile at home. Talk to the nurses and staff. Talk to other NICU parents about how to care for your baby at home. You may need to set up oxygen, SIDS monitors, special bottles or other equipment. Some pieces may be available through the hospital, while others may need to be arranged through special contractors. If insurance is a problem, talk with the social services coordinator at the hospital for help. There are ways to make sure that you and your baby have everything you need to transition from hospital to home.
Landing in the NICU isn’t part of any parent’s dream. But for a lot of families it is just the first stop of a long, happy and healthy life.