This past weekend, I got a Facebook message from an old friend from our days living in South Boston. Her twin girls, just over a week old now, were born at 32 weeks and 4 days (the exact same gestational age Daisy was born - to the day!) and are living in the neonatal intensive care unit (or, NICU, as you quickly learn to call it) for a while.
Her message conveyed a mix of gratitude and worry that I remember like it was yesterday: "I had no idea how hard this would be! The nurses are out of this world amazing, but it's not easy." I was instantly transported to that place of deeply thanking my lucky stars for the fantastic care we received from the nursing staff and simultaneously feeling sorry for myself that we were spending this phase in a hospital. Yes, the nurses (and doctors of course) are amazing, but no, it isn't easy. Here are some words of encouragement and advice for parents whose children are in the NICU based on our seven weeks in the Neonatal Intensive Care Nursery at Jefferson Hospital.
You will survive - and even thrive - in this period if you can get to a place where you focus only on the upsides of the NICU experience. Here are some pluses:
You can actually REST. Nick and I visited Daisy in the hospital twice a day and outside of those visits, all I did was sleep and eat ice cream in bed watching Bravo. Most new parents are jolted immediately into a new schedule involving little sleep, unless they have a night nurse. You have MANY night nurses, and they are free (sort of)! Sleep late, go to bed early, take naps - stock up on sleep and take advantage of this break.
You have a “childcare 101” of sorts that involves hands-on training and supervision that most parents don’t get. No one is handing over two babies and sending you on your merry way. Instead, you will have an extended period of time to watch the professionals and learn the right way to do everything and why. The nurses will show you how best to bathe your baby, practicing in a tiny plastic tub with you. They will teach you how to swaddle and roll little blankets around your baby to create a nest for them. You will be the most blanket-fluent parents around.
You have your very own breastfeeding cheer squad. The nurses will guide you through breastfeeding, teaching you the best positions to protect your back and baby’s neck. They will coach you through pumping and congratulate you every time you return from the pumping room with a bottle – no matter how much or little you may have produced. They know how hard it is and they have your back.
Most new parents have many moments of panic in the first weeks and months with baby at home where they wonder “should we take baby to the doctor/hospital?” – lucky you, you’re already there! Any time you have a fear or concern as you learn more about baby, you have a team of highly-skilled physicians and nursing staff right there to help you. They will explain funny sounds, changes in poop, coughs, sneezes and runny noses.
There is a community of new moms at your fingertips. Get to know the other parents in the NICU wing. Strangely enough, I chatted with other moms behind the pumping screens in the lactation room. It was weird, but, we were going through a similar experience and needed to talk about it. Having a sick baby is pretty terrifying. Reach out and lean on each other.
Do not feel you need to be at the NICU for fifteen hours a day and do not move into the NICU. The best thing you can do for baby is take care of YOU. Get rest, go out to eat, buy some clothes that make you feel less like a whale, watch garbage on television and breathe. Visit baby often but give yourself some time too. Your baby will not know whether you are there or not. I used to feel so guilty every time I walked out of the NICU doors I nearly cried every day, twice a day, for seven weeks. I was terrified Daisy wouldn't develop a bond with me if I wasn't there 24/7 but in reality, that's just crazy. Don't beat yourself up. Your sweet babies benefit from any time you spend in the NICU and they will have all the other warmth and human contact they need from the nurses.
Set boundaries with family about visiting that you are comfortable with. The NICU can be an intense place and NICU staff will want you to be selective with how many people you bring into the sterile environment. It’s okay to ask that only immediate family visit. People will understand.
Make the NICU trip into something fun whenever you can. Nick and I found fun restaurants near the hospital and often went on dates after we left the hospital. We'd sit at our table passing our phones back and forth with new videos and photos we'd taken that day.
Create little routines with your baby so they can recognize your voice. We had two songs that we sang to Daisy every time we got to her room and every time we left. We would each hold one of her hands and gently sing. Towards the end of our stay at the NICU she would immediately open her eyes and pick her head up a little when she heard us begin to sing.
Bringing books helps the visits feel more interesting. We read children's books and passages from the books we were reading ourselves. It can be challenging to sit in a room for hours while your child sleeps inside a plastic incubator. Reading and music help :)
Pray. Before Daisy came into our lives, Nick and I weren't praying types. However, when you no longer have control over the future of your child, you start to look outside yourself for something greater. We prayed regularly while she was in utero and we knew she was sick. We wrote our own prayers and we chose pieces from the internet and books and kept a little journal of prayers we liked. We found great solace in saying prayers over Daisy's isolette before we left the NICU every night. Nothing formal, just taking turns talking to God (whatever we conceive him to be), asking for protection and mercy for our sweet baby. It helped.
Having a baby (or two!) in the NICU is not something that will ever be easy, but, it does get easier and there are upsides, even if they are hard to see. You, and baby (or babies!) , will come out stronger than ever when the time comes and your time at home will mean that much more ♥