You’re a new parent with a baby in the NICU – your life has instantly and unexpectedly become a rollercoaster. Every day is an emotionally, psychologically and physically intense ride marked by triumphs, worries, joy and fear.
As you sit by the incubator with your baby, you may wonder how you are going to cope. You can’t prepare for this experience and nobody prepared you to be where you are right now. It’s important that you know how to cope so that you can keep loving your baby through this, share the experience with your partner and look after yourself as best you can. This means the world to you all.
There is the very real heartache in being physically separated from your new baby, agonising over her responsiveness to treatment and care and constantly waiting on the edge as you keep watch and hope for positive signs of progress. This isn’t all that defines your experience as a new parent with a baby in the NICU. This is a life-changing experience that will draw upon all of your love, strength, faith, courage, vulnerability and more. You will be forever changed and will come to see yourself in a new, amazing light – as a woman or man, partner and mother or father.
If you are the parent of a baby in the NICU, perhaps reading this on your smartphone as you sit with your baby will help you cope with more ease.
#1: Remember, You Are The Parent
When your baby is in the NICU, it can sometimes be a challenge to experience parental confidence. You may feel scared of touching your baby, or worried you may hurt him. Instead, you may ask nurses and professionals to help out. You may not be at home, comfortable on your sofa with your newborn, but you are still the parent. Your baby recognises your smell, loves the sound of your voice, and feels safest in your arms. Don’t be afraid to ask the nurse if you can change your baby’s nappies (or diapers if you’re in the US) and bath your baby. Unless there is a good reason not to, your care providers should do all they can to assist you in taking on these parental duties and encourage bonding and connection.
#2: Practice Kangaroo Care
Kangaroo care is defined as a premature or low birth weight baby lying in an upright position on the mother and/or father’s chest to allow for skin-to-skin contact and connection. The baby should be naked apart from the nappy, and something should be used to cover the baby’s back to stop him from getting cold. Kangaroo care is a method devised to improve the outcomes for premature and low birth weight babies. Talk with your care provider about using kangaroo care with your baby.
#3: Hold Your Baby, Skin-To-Skin
When your baby is strong enough to be held, engage in some skin-to-skin contact. This well-regarded practice isn’t just for mothers – dads can get in on the action as well. Skin-to-skin has been found to regulate the baby’s breathing, regulate his temperature, help with breastfeeding, and help with bonding.
#4: Breastfeed, If You Can
If your baby arrives early, your body produces breast milk that is specially designed to nourish a premature baby. Isn’t that amazing?! Your baby will be getting a much-needed immunity boost and help to fight off infection from your precious milk. If you need to boost your milk supply and would like to have a treat all in one, try our lactation cookies recipe.
#5: Read To Your Baby
One of the worst things about having a baby in the NICU, is that you may feel you are missing out on being a ‘normal’ parent. There may be some things you can’t do for your baby just yet, but no matter how old your baby, you can read to her. Read books and stories to her each day, make it part of your daily routine. Not only will this help soothe your baby by the sound of your voice, it will pass some time, give you a sense of routine, and help you to feel like the parent you always wanted to be through bonding with your baby.
#6: Celebrate The Milestones
Premature babies have a whole other set of milestones to reach, and you should celebrate each one. They may be small things, you but your baby is fighting to achieve them, and you are supporting him in doing so, so celebrate each new milestone as he reaches it.
#7: Don’t Be Afraid To Ask Questions
Medical jargon can be scary, and you may not understand a lot of what is said during rounds – but don’t be afraid to ask. Note down any terms you don’t understand, and ask for clarification later. If the doctor says something you don’t understand, ask him to explain further.
#8: Accept Your Emotions
You are on an emotional rollercoaster, and will probably experience every experience under the sun before your time in the NICU comes to an end. That’s ok. All of your emotions are real, and huge, and deserve to be heard. It’s ok to cry, it’s to be angry, and, it’s ok to feel happy and excited about the future. Don’t ignore your emotions, instead accept them, voice them and share them.
#9: Be There
Your baby wants you to be with her as often as you can. Though it can hard to face, don’t hide away from the hospital, or busy yourself with other things. Yes, it’s hard to accept that the NICU is your baby’s home for a while, but your baby will find it much easier if you are there with her.
#10: Make It A Home
It’s not the nursery you lovingly decorated during pregnancy, but, for now at least, the NICU is your baby’s home. It can be hard to gaze round at the machinery, sterile decor and other patients milling around. Make your baby’s temporary home feel a bit more homely by bringing in some bits and pieces from home. The baby blanket you picked out for him, the soft toys he has received as gifts, and some framed photos of his family will brighten up his home, and perhaps leave you feeling a little more relaxed. Turn your chair around for a bit of privacy from other hospital guests.
#11: Document It
Take lots of photographs of your newborn baby. Celebrate each milestone with a photograph, take family portraits when you get the chance to hold him, and document his time in the NICU. Keep a journal of this period in your lives. You will be surprised how quickly the details can blur, so make sure you write about this time while it is still fresh in your mind. Make sure there is something he can look back on when he’s older – photographs and notes of the beginning phase of his life.
#12: Parent Your Other Kids
Your other children may not be in the NICU, but they still need you. Make sure you spend time each day with them. If you would rather stay close to the hospital, ask a friend or family member to bring your kids to the hospital so you can have lunch with them in the canteen. If your baby is in a hospital far from home, and you’re staying in a hotel over there, make sure you have a set time for phone or video calls each day.
#13: Accept All Help
There’s a reason people want to help parents with babies in the NICU, it’s because you need it. You need it, and they need it. Rather than stand helplessly by, they can get stuck in making life a little bit easier for you at a time when you need it most. Let them tidy your house, cook your meals and do your laundry. Let them babysit your kids, bring you books, and drive you to the hospital. No-one is expecting you do it all.
#14: Look After Yourself
Make sure you are eating, sleeping and resting. It’s easy to forget your own needs when you’re busy caring for someone else. But you need to be fed, watered and rested in order to provide the best care for your baby – and you don’t know how long this ride is going to last. The importance of self-care for NICU parents cannot be overstated.
#15: Give Yourself A Break
You don’t need to be in the NICU 24 hours a day. It’s ok to take a break every now and then, to go for a walk round the block, meet up with a friend for coffee, or just grab some me time. Don’t feel guilty for taking a little bit of time out to look after yourself. Bring back some of the beauty of the outside world back into the NICU to your baby. Look at the sky and take your baby out there with you. You’re always together now that you’re a parent – wherever you are.
#16: Connect With Other NICU Parents
It can help to know that you’re not alone. Look around you, there are other parents in the NICU right now who are facing the struggles and triumphs you are. Reach out to these parents and offer them support, and ask your healthcare provider if there are any local support groups for NICU parents, you may find it helps to listen to the stories of other parents.
#17: Take It One Day At A Time
A lot can happen in one day in the NICU, so take it slowly. Try not to worry too much about the future (easier said than done, of course), and instead focus on today. Enjoy each moment, and be present in the now.
Hang in there. We’re all in your corner, wishing the very best for you and your baby.