It sounds intense: Neonatal Intensive Care Unit. The NICU. And the experience can be intense. And scary.
No parent signs up to be a NICU parent, and I’m guessing no baby spends their time in utero dreaming of being a “NICU baby.” But sometimes, the NICU is the very best first home for little ones requiring a little extra love—and highly specialized medical care—upon arrival.
As the mother of two NICU grads myself, I wanted to share a few thoughts and tips to consider for other parents whose baby is unexpectedly admitted to the NICU:
Be Patient – Whether your NICU stay is 1 or 100 days, be patient. It’s difficult, but so very important to have patience. In many cases, premature babies simply need time to grow and develop before making their debut in the real world. Other times, complications with a mother’s pregnancy or a baby’s health result in necessary medical interventions during the first hours, days, weeks or months of life.
Be Prepared – Be prepared to care for yourself and your partner, in addition to your baby in the NICU. Take a breath of fresh air from time to time, and be sure to eat well and stay hydrated. Self-care is imperative, so make time to rest and bring in snacks, a change of clothes, magazines or digital distractions, etc., so you are prepared to visit and care for you baby without falling apart yourself. But most importantly, be prepared for curveballs. There will be lots of ups and downs, minute by minute and day by day.
Be Grateful – Be grateful for every success.
- The first time you change a diaper. (Who would have thought we’d be so grateful for that?!)
- Be excited when the first “attachment” comes off—whether it’s an IV, feeding tube, oxygen cannula, or all those leads when he or she is discharged.
- Celebrate when your baby takes that first sip of food, whether it’s via bottle or breast.
Celebrate each step in the right direction, and understand you might be taking small steps over the course of an entire marathon. There will be steps forward, and steps back.
Be Present – Be present when you are in your baby’s room. You may feel pressure to update your family about the situation and life’s typical demands continue—it’s difficult to avoid the outside world. But your baby is ready to hear your voice, not your phone constantly buzzing. When possible, be physically present.
You never know when those ups and downs may occur, so try to make “rounds.” Held twice a day, rounds are when the entire medical crew (doctors, nurses, pharmacists, dietitians, respiratory therapists, speech therapists who help with feeding, etc) discuss your baby’s condition. This is the best way to learn about and discuss the full picture with your baby’s team. This is also the best, most comprehensive opportunity to provide your input and direction.
But if you can’t make rounds every day, don’t stress about it! The NICU nurses are wonderful and can also give you a full report.
Be Confident – Be confident in your budding parental instincts. Be your baby’s medical advocate. You are the constant in your baby’s life, observing him or her day in and day out through various staff shifts. Be respectful of the staff’s expertise and allow them to do their jobs, but you can—and should—provide input. Let the nurses know your desired level of participation in your baby’s care while in the NICU.
Some parents may be comfortable changing the pulse oximeter, others may not. Both choices are perfectly acceptable. Tell the NICU team your preferences. If the care schedule is challenging for your family, perhaps they can tweak it for you. If you definitely want to be there for your baby’s first bath, let them know. Parents are encouraged to be involved, and the team is supportive in finding ways to make that happen.
Be Selective – Be selective about your visitors in the NICU. This isn’t the time to host a “sip and see.” Each visitor can potentially bring in a new set of germs, germs that are true threats to the delicate immune systems of NICU patients.
Make sure you and the visitors you choose to welcome follow the rules, no matter how insignificant they might be. There are protocols in place for the safety of all the babies and families in the NICU. Whenever you lose patience with the process, remember, all the steps are ultimately in place for the safety of your baby.
Be Thankful – Personally, the time my husband and I spent in the NICU with our two sons included some of the happiest and scariest moments of my life. “All the feels,” as they say.
My son, Kyle, was in the NICU for 30 days in the summer of 2017. Around Day 25—as I was crying happy, frustrated tears in the hospital’s family lounge—I started counting the many people I wanted to thank in the NICU and drafted a thank you note, attempting to recap everything—from seemingly insignificant details that truly mattered immensely to life-saving medical interventions—that I was eternally grateful for during our family’s most recent NICU experience. (I invite you to read that note, which accompanies this post.)
I wanted to be sure to say thank you this time. Not just as a courtesy, but because I felt that these special people made all the difference in our lives. Sure, I got into a few tiffs with some of the nurses. (Nurses: I adore all of you!) It was annoying having to check in with security every 24 hours to get a new badge. (Security guards: I appreciate how pleasant you made the experience!) We were terrified about our baby’s condition more than once, even as confident as we were in the NICU’s ability to care for him. We were frustrated by different philosophies from time to time. But we learned so much from everyone in the NICU.
Final tip – Remember that you’re all on the same team. Your baby's best interests are the top priority for you, your partner AND the entire NICU team. You may have challenging, overwhelming and scary conversations sometimes, but remember… A healthy, growing baby going home is the goal for everyone. That’s certainly my wish for you, new NICU parents.
Jamie Jalwan, a Sarasota-based marketing and communications consultant, and her husband Scott are the proud parents of two Sarasota Memorial Hospital NICU graduates: Connor (2016) and Kyle (2017).