Parents of preemies often have mixed feelings about the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU). On the one hand, the NICU is designed to keep preemies healthy and to help them grow. On the other hand, no parent expects or wants their child’s life outside of the womb to begin anywhere other than in their arms. These conflicting thoughts, along with other difficult feelings brought about by their baby’s birth experience, can make it hard for new parents to figure out how to navigate their time in the NICU.
One reason it can be hard to figure out the right way to handle time in the NICU is that there is no one plan that works for every parent with a child in the NICU; every situation is unique. In fact, many parents work while their babies are in the NICU so they can take time off once the babies are discharged from the hospital, which can have an impact on the way they spend their time there. If you’re working out how to handle your child’s NICU stay, here are a few thoughts to keep in mind about making the most of your experience. Soon you’ll get the hang of things, and you’ll make the NICU work for you, your family, and your strong-and-growing-stronger preemie.
- Try to schedule your NICU visits: This means waking up, getting ready, leaving your house, and then leaving the NICU around the same time every day. Many parents find that creating a schedule helps them feel more in control of the situation. On the off-hours of your visits, consider scheduling some time to exercise and express your feelings in some way, perhaps in a journal, or by talking to a friend or family member on the phone, or even seeing a therapist. Feeling refreshed can improve your time in the NICU, and when you’re with your baby, you’ll want to be able to focus on her emotionally.
- It’s okay to be intimidated by the NICU: Babies in the NICU are growing bigger and stronger by the minute. That said, the unit can feel overwhelming for a new parent. It’s filled with unfamiliar sounds and sights, and it can be hard for people to adjust to the environment. Don’t be embarrassed if you or your partner feel disoriented and uneasy in the NICU. In time, you’ll get more comfortable.
- Breastfeed if you’re able: Breast milk has health benefits that can be helpful for preemies. Pumping and sharing breast milk with a preemie can help parents feel like they’re able to do something concrete for their babies, too. Consider renting a hospital-grade breast pump, which can stimulate your breasts and help produce milk.
- Know that you might not be able to pump – and that’s okay: Not all new moms can pump breast milk. If your body is struggling to produce enough breast milk, remind yourself that this is nothing to feel shame or guilt about. Your presence at the NICU alone is helping your baby, and the hospital staff will make sure your child is getting all of the nutrition she needs.
- Get involved with the nurses and doctors: Learn the rules of the NICU, especially the visiting hours, how many people you can bring to the NICU, and what you can bring into the room with you. Get to know the staff in the NICU, especially the primary nurse assigned to your preemie, because he or she will be learning your baby’s specific habits and preferences. Don’t be afraid to ask questions; they’ll be happy to help you out.
- Get involved with your preemie: Kangaroo care, or skin-to-skin contact between parents and their preemie, is a way to encourage bonding with preemies. Many hospitals encourage kangaroo care between parents and their babies, so don’t be afraid to ask when and how that can happen. You may also be able to take on some of the aspects of your baby’s care, like helping to change her diaper, take her temperature, or breastfeed her skin-to-skin.
- Don’t be afraid to advocate for your baby: You are your baby’s voice in the NICU, so it’s up to you to let the hospital staff know concerns or preferences you have for your preemie. If you have a request, just ask; the worst that happens is your baby’s doctor or nurse says they can’t do it.
- Bring hand lotion: Parents wash and sanitize their hands repeatedly while they’re in the NICU. Your hands might get uncomfortably dry, so consider bringing some moisturizing lotion along.
- Take pictures: Many new parents feel that they shouldn’t or don’t want to take pictures of their preemie while she is growing in the NICU. This makes sense, but a lot of parents also say that they later regret not taking pictures during this time. If this seems like something you’re interested in doing, know that many parents eventually do appreciate having these pictures.
- Know that leaving the NICU will be hard: For some women, leaving the hospital without their newborn baby can trigger intense feelings of depression and emotional pain. However, at some point, your team will probably advise you to leave the hospital to sleep and get some time away. It might not be easy to leave at first, so if you have a hard time leaving, remind yourself that most new parents of preemies struggle with this, and that you’re not alone.
As the parent of a preemie, you’re going to find that deep inside, you have an incredible amount of strength, resilience, and hope. Some days will be harder than others, but try to find the positives about the NICU. Remember that the NICU is the safest place for a preemie to be, and that every day that a preemie spends in the NICU is one day closer to coming home with her parents.
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