Surviving the NICU

baby with breathing tube in the NICU

No one ever dreams about giving birth to a child who needs to spend time in the NICU. Unfortunately, it can and does happen. This article is for moms and family members to help survive the roller coaster of emotions involved with having a child staying in a NICU.

Getting to Know the NICU

NICU or Neonatal Intensive Care Unit is a unit in a hospital that specialized in the care of ill or premature infants. These units have special equipment, specially trained staff, and more resources then a typical nursery ward.

It is not that uncommon for newborns, even at full term, to spend a day in the NICU. A common reason would be close monitoring of jaundice or respiratory (breathing) issues.

baby in incubator

Most children who spend a great deal of time in the NICU are babies born too early. A full term pregnancy is considered a pregnancy lasting 37-40+ weeks. Many babies, for a variety of reasons, are born much sooner then this. Birth defects, such as intrauterine growth retardation, congenital malformations, sepsis (infection in the blood stream) and birth asphyxia are also some reasons infants are observed in NICU’s.

Now that we know some of the reason’s babies can end up in the NICU, let’s discuss some of the ways parents can cope.

Finding Healthy Coping Mechanisms

As if childbirth itself is not emotionally draining, having a child in the NICU is extra challenging, mentally and physically.

The most important thing new parents can do to benefit their child is to take care of themselves. The stress and emotions will leave everyone less likely to eat, drink water, and rest. Take turns or ‘shifts’ at the hospital. Make a ‘to-do’ list and be sure to include: eating, drinking, and bathing. Depending on your child’s condition, your child could be in the NICU for months. You need to keep up your strength.

The atmosphere in the NICU can be scary: strange noises, odd looking equipment and infants so tiny they don’t even seem real. Get to know the staff/parents around you. Ask what the different devices are and what they do. When you familiarize yourself with your surroundings, the NICU won’t seem so intimidating.

Take advantage of the support groups offered at the hospital. Getting together with people who understand what you’re going through can help with the NICU experience. Other parents can also be a source of great information. Making new friends is also another added bonus.

Keep a journal of your child’s progress and happenings. It’s going to be very hard not to obsess over every little detail, but it will give you something to do when time just seems to stand still. It’s also a great avenue to express your feelings.

Get to know your child’s nurses and caretakers. Generally, the same nurses take care of the same children everyday. Develop a rapport with them. Since nurses don’t work seven days a week, there will be days when new caretakers are there. The more you get to know the staff, the more at ease you will feel.

baby sucking on pacifier

Find some books to read about preemie/NICU experiences. Many parents, after surviving giving birth to preemies, have gone on to write books about their experiences.

Allow yourself the opportunity to cry. Many parents of NICU kids feel a wide variety of emotions. Some feel guilty, as if something they’ve done caused this to happen. Others feel angry or ‘cheated’ out of a normal newborn experience. All of these emotions are normal. Allow yourself time to grieve.

Negative emotions, especially bottled up ones, do no one any good, especially not your new baby.

Finding balance between the NICU world and the outside world can be difficult. Seek out the help of staff when needed. You’re encouraged to spend as much time as you can with your newborn but that shouldn’t mean you’re neglecting your family or their peace of mind in the process.

If you’re interested in breastfeeding, even if your child is not able to nurse yet, you can still pump your breast milk and save it for later. The hospital may have a pump you can use or rent. Take advantage of the lactation consultant too. They are a great resource for breastfeeding questions and advice.

You’re going to have good days and you’re going to have bad days. It’s not uncommon for a child to be making a lot of progress and then have a relapse. It’s also not uncommon for a child who appears to not be doing well, to suddenly start doing well. Although you’re probably not going to be able to help much with the “medical” aspects of your child’s care, there are probably things that you can help with. Ask the staff what you can do to help. Get to know your child. Learn their cues when they need to sleep, when they need to eat, when they’ve had enough and need a break. Most importantly, enjoy your baby.

© Rebecca Pillar 2007