Making the most of the NICU

On my due date with my second baby, my midwife came for a home visit. Just like she had each visit over the past 40 weeks, she produced a doppler from her bag. I laid down, and expected to hear the same rhythmic thumps I’d heard every other time. Instead, it sounded like someone bouncing a tennis ball around the room. Rapid thumps with no order to them. That was the first moment I realized something was wrong with my baby’s heart. We’d later discover there was more than one “something” wrong.

When my son arrived at 41 weeks and 3 days, we had a beautiful birth. I held him in my arms for a perfect 24 hours. Then it came crashing down. I wouldn’t bring him home for another 17 days. It would take 5 weeks until we stopped returning twice a week for assessments. During our time in the NICU, I encountered a few things I wish I had known ahead of time.

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Rooming In

Leaving the hospital without my baby was not on my to do list. Luckily the hospital took the initiative to tell me about their rooming in policies. Rooming in looks a little different from hospital to hospital. Some NICUs have cots available for parents. In other cases, you may be provided with a room in the Ronald McDonald House. In my case, I was given an empty postpartum recovery room to share with another NICU mother. We treated it a bit like a hotel room. I’d sleep there, and get a phone call when my baby would cry, to trek down the hall to the NICU and give him some well deserved cuddles.

Living in the hospital might feel like the last thing you want to do during a difficult time. However, rooming in has real advantages. You’ll be able to bond with your baby, and visit them around the clock. You may be able to establish breastfeeding. You’ll be able to receive reports on your baby’s health and well-being in real time.

Going Home

Rooming in does, however, have its disadvantages. Ten days into our stay, the NICU nurses gathered together and ordered me home for the night. I was exhausted. I had stopped being Sophia, or Mom, and starting being Cot #8’s Guardian. Your baby needs a healthy mother, and it’s impossible to retain good mental health when you never see the sun. I needed to go home, and I wish Id done it sooner. I got to take my first postpartum bath, pack everything I wish I’d had in the hospital from day one, and sleep in my own bed. I returned to the hospital the following day feeling like a new woman.

It’s hard, leaving your baby’s side. I called to check on him a good half dozen times, and pumped milk through the night. But it’s crucial to go easy on yourself. You may be the mother of a fragile infant, but you’re also recovering from childbirth. Taking care of yourself may not feel like a priority, but it is.

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My pair, in happier times

Big Siblings

My daughter is a trooper. She was three years old, and sat with me day after day through three months of bed rest. Her baby brother arrived, she came to the hospital to visit and celebrate. And then, suddenly, mommy and the baby disappeared for two weeks.

It’s all too easy for older children to fall through the cracks. They’re okay, they’re surviving, they aren’t the main focus. But they need you. They’re still adjusting to life with a new baby, and need all the same support you’d give them in a typical birth situation. I wish I had allowed my daughter to visit more. The relief she felt when she’d enter the hospital was palpable. We had the front desk make her a special bracelet to help her feel included. The baby had his patient bracelet, we had our parent ID bracelets, and she got her very special Big Sister bracelet. We also allowed her to help feed and change the baby when possible. Children are far more capable of adjusting to stressful environments than we give them credit for. Visiting the NICU, when possible, shows your child that mom and baby are still here, still okay, and life will go on.

NICU Dads

When my baby went to the NICU, everyone saw two key focal points. Caring for the baby, and getting me through this. When my partner left the hospital to raise our daughter single handedly, he had a newborn hooked up to machines and a wife on valium. He still had to go home, make dinner, and put our daughter to bed. Of course he struggled! He snapped at staff, he didn’t interact with the baby as much as he did with our previous child. I was heartbroken, I took it as a sign that he wasn’t invested.

Of course, in hindsight, it’s apparent that he was a wreck. How on earth can you parent a baby you can’t see or hold? How can you support your partner when they’re in a hospital room on the other side of the city? Support for fathers is absolutely crucial. Make arrangements ahead of time if possible. Ask family and friends if they’ll help with childcare and household duties. Trade off time in the NICU so dad can stay involved. Let him know it’s okay to be sad, or angry.

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Community

When my baby was born, I made one Facebook post announcing he was here. Then I disappeared for two weeks. Explaining to each well wisher individually that my baby couldn’t come home was the last thing I wanted. It felt insurmountable. It felt like self preservation, but really it was isolation. I so needed someone to visit. Someone to take me out for coffee and listen to me cry. Allow yourself a shoulder to cry on. Surround yourself with people who care about you.

Celebrate your baby’s birth. I regret imposing my isolation on my baby immensely. I look back on my daughter’s first days and see overjoyed social media posts, a flurry of photos taken, a baby welcoming party. My son’s birth was followed by radio silence. Your baby may not be well enough for visitors, let alone a welcoming party, but celebrate nonetheless. Take photos constantly. Beam with pride over your bundle of joy. Admire every finger and toe. Shout from the rooftops every time your child has a particularly cute hiccup. They’re still your baby, and you’re still a new mother. You deserve to celebrate.

What to bring

I checked into my hospital room with just my purse and a change of clothes. I thought I would be heading home the day following the birth, I didn’t think to plan ahead. A few items, however, really made a difference.

Pack your electronics. I joke that Breaking Bad single handedly got me through the NICU stay. The NICU is a hard place. It can be emotional and difficult and overwhelming. It can also be as boring as all get out. You’ll spend time waiting for doctors to do rounds. You’ll spend time staring at the wall while your baby sleeps (and boy do they sleep a lot). You’ll spend time waiting when you arrive to feed your baby and discover the nurse already did. You’ll wait and wait and wait. I felt a little guilty, streaming HBO from a NICU rocking chair. There’s no prize for martyrdom here. It’s physically impossible to stare at your baby every waking moment for weeks on end. Find something to keep yourself busy. Bring that iPad, grab some good books. Find those time killers, you’ll need them.

Stock up on postpartum care items. A few hours after I moved to my NICU stay room, I walked down to the front desk to request my postpartum package, just as I had every four hours since birth. Tylenol, advil, stool softener, ice pack. When I arrived I was told “We’re sorry, you aren’t a patient anymore. We cant dispense medication for anyone besides your baby”. Uh oh. You’re going to be healing in a less than ideal environment, and you’ll need supplies. Bring more comfortable clothes than you think you’ll need. Stock up on comfort meds and Maxi pads. Keep good, nourishing food nearby (I’m amazed I didn’t kill myself surviving the postpartum period on vending machine snacks and Tim Hortons alone). Bring ALL your self care items. No, not just a toothbrush. You’re in for the long haul. Grab that razor and that makeup bag. You’ll feel a million times better if you take care of yourself.

Move the nursery to the hospital. At first, my son didn’t need much. He lived in the incubator and was periodically picked up to take a bottle. But they do get better. It may not feel like they will, but they improve over time. At a certain point you’ll be able to bathe your baby. Bring along that adorable hooded towel. Make it feel like home. It’s your first time bathing your baby, that’s something to celebrate. Towards the end of our stay I brought in a bouncy chair. The NICU staff and I noticed motion soothed him, and it made all of our lives easier allowing him to rest in a tiny vibrating chair in the corner of the NICU. I also brought in my baby carrier. All the wires eventually came off, and I still had a fussy baby to soothe. I’d strap him in, and enjoy walks around the ward together.

I can’t stress this enough, dress your baby. It feels a little silly, fretting about which outfits to choose for a baby in intensive care. Trust me, you’ll suddenly feel much better once you actually get to dress your baby for the first time. I still treasure the first onesies I was able to dress him in.

Bring your breastfeeding gear (if you choose to nurse). My baby couldn’t latch at first, and your baby may not be able to either. I pumped tiny bottles of milk in my room and carried them down the hall to the NICU fridge dutifully. At the time, it felt like the only tangible way I could care for him. It made a big impact on my emotional state, feeling like I could help. Packing my breast pads and nursing pillow allowed me to continue working on my breastfeeding goals. Every tiny step, especially that first successful latch, felt like a major victory.

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My NICU graduate

One night, when I was struggling, a nurse sat with me by my baby’s incubator. She told me “Right now, your world is upsidedown. But I promise you, whatever happens, someday this will just be a memory”. She was right. If you’re beginning your NICU journey, know that it will end. You are strong enough. And someday, this will all just be a memory.

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