Coping While your Baby is in the NICU
When you found out you were pregnant you may have already had an idea of what the post-delivery period would be like, holding your baby to your chest as soon as they were delivered, breastfeeding them in the hospital, bringing them home with you. When your baby is born prematurely (before the 37th week of gestation) many parents feel like that perfect dream has been ripped away.
Why do babies stay in the NICU?
The first time you go in to see your baby in the NICU you may get overwhelmed by the monitors, special medical equipment, and just the way you feel detached from your baby when you are not able to easily pick them up and cuddle them like you planned to.
Your baby will most likely be very small and lack some of the baby fat that fills out a typical newborn. Your baby may have thin skin that is almost translucent, and their features may be sharper than you are used to with a newborn. Don’t worry, your baby is still growing and changing and as they spend time outside of the womb and are cared for they will eventually start looking more like other newborns.
Babies who are born early may not be able to regulate their body temperature, getting too cold. Due to this, your baby may be in an incubator with a heat lamp and you may not be able to get them out to hold them very often. It is important to spend time with your baby during this time as talking to them and being around them can be beneficial to both of you.
Once your baby is well enough to maintain body temperature for a bit longer you may be able to start holding them and practicing kangaroo care or skin to skin bonding. You may even be able to help feed your baby either via nursing or a bottle to get them used to eat. If you plan to nurse your baby, make sure you are pumping regularly while they are in the NICU to make sure you build up and maintain your supply.
Even though your baby is well enough to be held and fed, you still may find that they are hooked up to a ventilator to help them breathe, supplemental oxygen, and many monitoring machines that track their heartbeat, respiration, the oxygen level in their blood, and other bodily functions. It may feel intimidating to hold your baby with so many tubes and wires attached to them, but a nurse will help you tame the chaos and instruct you on how to cope with the limitations.
It is likely that you will go home before your baby can. This can be especially emotional, as you may feel guilty about not being with your baby as much as possible as you could if your baby was home with you. Remember that you can spend as much time at the hospital as you can, holding, feeding, and talking to your baby and that as soon as they can they will come home too.
Start off on the right foot developing a strong respectful relationship with your baby’s pediatrician. They will come to visit your baby in the NICU regularly and will be your first line of information about your baby’s treatment plan and how they are reacting to it. Find out from the nurses when the doctor makes rounds so you can be there to speak to the doctor directly as much as possible.
Connect with the other parents
Make connections with other parents of preemies, they can often be your best support as they are going through the same thing, and supporting them can help you feel more positive as well. Seek out support groups in your area, finding a mentor that has been through this and come out on the other side can really help assuage anxiety and give you a safe space to discuss your feelings.
Keep a journal about your baby’s stay in the NICU, not only is this a great way to note milestones, procedures, and concerns, but it can be a way to help you cope with your stress and emotions by documenting what is going on.
Establish a routine for visits to make sure you are using the most of your time. Ask if you can bring in clothes to dress your baby and make sure to change any diapers that you can. These little things will help you to feel more connected to your child even though you cannot be there all the time.
Find a way to communicate updates en masse, whether, through social media, email, or a group chat, it will be much easier to tell everyone at once so that you don’t spend your days trying to update people individually. Often families will find that one of the grandparents is willing to take on the role of updater to give the parents more time to spend with the baby.
Be prepared and well rested
Make sure that you are getting enough rest, while it may be hard you may need to work into your routine a time to go home and nap, shower, and be away from the hospital. As you learn your baby’s sleeping routine/waking routine you will be able to find the best time of day to make time for yourself.
Learn to meditate or practice another form of mindfulness to help cope with stress and anxiety that is rampant when your baby is in the hospital. Learning to be as calm as the situation allows will help you and your baby immensely.
Finally, make sure you are accepting any help that is offered if it will be useful. People may offer to cook meals, pick up older kids from school, or even sit with your baby when you can’t. Make sure that you’re not adding stress by having to sync up schedules, but also that you’re not trying to do too much on your own either. This is definitely the time when friends and family can come in handy. Take care of yourself and your baby, and enjoy this time.