It's the scene that you've dreamed about since you became pregnant: the moment where you meet your baby for the first time and enjoy a blissfully short hospital stay before whisking him home to meet the family. Unfortunately, for the 8 to 10 percent of families who have a premature birth or sick baby, that scene doesn't play out as planned. Instead, a prolonged stay in the Neonatal iIntensive Care Unit—NICU—might be required. A NICU stay can be traumatic for any parent, but rest assured that your baby's in good hands and in the best place possible. As for you, there are a few actions you can take to help you, your baby and your family survive a stint in the NICU with most of your sanity intact.
- Take a tour. While the majority of parents don't plan for the risk of a NICU stay, if you do have a head's up, ask for a tour. Most hospitals will gladly show you the ropes if you're anticipating an NICU stay, and it's an excellent time to get acquainted with the environment, machines and expectations without the heightened emotions of seeing your own baby among the beds.
- Get to know the team. Your baby will have any number of doctors, nurses and other experts working toward his well-being. While you might not get to personally know all of the nurses and other key players, introduce yourself to the neonatologists and primary care nurses, at the very least. Once your baby's in the NICU, you'll be glad you kept the lines of communication open with these various health care providers.
- Ask questions. The NICU can be intimidating, especially if it's your first time. If you don't know something, ask! NICU staff nurse and Infant Developmental Nurse Specialist Theresa Kledzik says, "It is the NICU staff's responsibility to answer your questions to your understanding. Keep asking until you fully understand. Ask for written materials they may have on hand, videos for parent education and classes for parents as well as parent support groups." Requesting explanations of foreign procedures and machines may seem daunting, but you have the right to understand what's going on.
- Have bonding time. Parents with NICU babies often miss out on the crucial bonding time that occurs naturally when a child is born—especially with babies who are in isolettes, or tiny incubators, and can't be held. Set aside special time to touch, talk and sing to your little one. Once he's well enough, ask your nurse about "kangaroo care," or skin-to-skin contact, a method of therapy where you're able to hold your baby against your body for mutual growth, development and mental benefits. Once he's healthy enough, you'll also be able to participate in his "cares," which involves taking temps, giving baths and changing diapers.
- Keep track. If your baby were at home, you'd probably be snapping pictures, updating your Facebook status and keeping track of all of the new "firsts." While in the NICU, you can recoup from feeling the loss of missing out on the traditional new baby process by keeping track of your NICU stay through pictures, blog posts and words in your journal. It may seem painful now, but one day you'll want to look back on all your infant accomplished in his first few weeks and months of life.
- Check into services. You might have trouble dealing with the emotions and setbacks that come with a NICU baby. Look into the services that the hospital offers for parents. From social workers to sibling programs, classes and support groups, you don't have to go it alone.
- Take some "me" time. It's tempting to keep a constant vigil at your baby's bedside, but the hospital can be a difficult place when you're there 24/7. Take some time to go for a walk on the grounds, see a movie or have lunch with a friend without feeling guilty. Competent doctors and nurses are there to care for your baby while you care for yourself. Trust me—he won't miss you while you take a few hours of "me" time for your health and sanity.
- Plan for bumps. One of the biggest mistakes a parent can make is creating a deadline or set of expectations for the length of a stay. Each baby's different and has different circumstances. While most NICUs will tell you to plan for a release date around your original due date, it's not a hard and fast rule. Kledzik warns, "Know that the process of recovery/maturation for your baby is not a smooth course. It is almost always characterized by little setbacks. Sometimes big setbacks. These aren't easy to cope with but they are to be expected." Take it one day at a time to avoid thinking about a specific release date.
As the parent of a NICU graduate, you're bound to feel frustrated and helpless at times. Seeing your baby in someone else's care, the upset to your schedule and the endless trek from home to the hospital and back again can be emotionally and physically draining. But no newborn stays in the NICU forever and soon you'll be home, fighting sleep deprivation and reveling in the miracle that is your brand-new baby.