Parents do countless things to prepare for the arrival of a new baby—research, plan, decorate, buy baby gear, select a name and so much more. No matter how much parents prepare, the unexpected can happen. For a variety of reasons, some find themselves in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU) sitting with their newborn.
When I found out I was expecting triplets, I was told they would likely spend time in the NICU due to premature birth. I had absolutely no idea how to prepare; the information was overwhelming and the uncertainty was frightening. I have found the true experts are parents who have experienced the NICU. The information they share provides a glimpse into what to expect. Here are some of their most valuable tips.
Visiting your child in the NICU for the first time can be very intimidating. Your baby will be covered with wires and may look tiny and fragile. It is normal to feel nervous about caring for your child. Ask the NICU nurses how to get involved in your child’s care. They are often willing to teach you how to work around medical equipment. “Once I began taking my son’s temperature, changing diapers and assisting with bathing, I felt so much more comfortable and less intimidated.” Rachel Watts says.
“Don’t put a timeframe on how long you expect them to be there.” says Nikki Rhyme, mother of triplets. The rule of thumb is that babies born prematurely will typically go home around their due date; however, that is not always the case. Babies progress at their own pace.
“Anytime I was frustrated, I had to sit back and [recognize] that my boys have learned to breathe, suck and swallow before most kids are born,” says Jessica Craine, mom of twins.
BE YOUR CHILD’S ADVOCATE
“Don’t be afraid to ask questions. They are your babies, and you have a voice in how things go,” says triplet mom, Michelle Glasser. The doctors and nurses work hard to give your child the best possible care, but parents play a big role in the care their child receives. “Try to be present during [doctor] rounds to get updates on baby's status and care,” says mom Courtney Harreld.
TAKE CARE OF YOURSELF
When your baby is in the NICU, it is easy to focus solely on baby’s health. Amidst the struggles, do not forget who just gave birth—often by emergency C-section—and sometimes after weeks of bedrest. It’s important to take care of yourself during this time. Eat healthy meals, drink lots of water, take breaks, spend time with your significant other and other children and—this is a big one—ask for help.
“Tell your friends and family you’re struggling and need support,” says Watts. People often want to help, but don’t know what to do unless you ask. Give them specific tasks that will ease the burden, such as preparing a meal for your family, doing a load of laundry, or taking your other children to the park.
DOCUMENT THIS SPECIAL TIME
The NICU is generally a stressful place, which makes it easy to forget to document your baby’s milestones. “Record the true day of the first bath, when they wore clothes the first time, when they moved from an incubator to a crib…These are memories I will cherish forever!” says Craine.
“I wish I had more photos during this time,” says mother of triplets, Alex Tichet. Although it is hard to see your tiny baby fighting in the NICU, many parents cherish those photos because they are proof of how far their amazing and strong child has come.
“I wasn’t prepared for some of the things we saw and neither was my husband. We could see doctors working on babies to save their lives. Incredibly heartbreaking.” says Jenna Mrnak, mother of triplets. It will be difficult to witness some of the things that go on in the NICU as babies struggle to grow and thrive. Take comfort in the knowledge that miracles happen there.
KEEP YOUR HEAD UP
“A great piece of advice I got from my best friend who also had a NICU baby,” says Eve Bernfeld, mother of three, “was ‘picture yourself and your baby a couple seasons in the future when you are doing something totally normal.’ This helped remind me that things would be normal someday.”
Each day in the NICU seems like an eternity, but when your baby comes home and the years go by, that time becomes a distant memory. “It seems like a never-ending experience, whether it’s five days or five months, but it will be a thing of the past before you know it.” says Jennifer Pena.
Our NICU experiences defined one of the most difficult seasons my family has walked through. Even so, I find myself looking back on it fondly because I am more aware of how miraculous life is. It is a challenging place to be, but the NICU staff will do everything possible to get your baby well and home with the family.
Sarah Lyons is a proud mother of six. The inspiration for this article comes from her experience in the NICU after the birth of her triplets.