14 survival tips for parents with babies in the NICU

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“At birth, Christopher had no heartbeat, he was not breathing, and his limp, blue body did not respond to his airway being suctioned. He looked completely lifeless. But then the neonatologist and nurses from the NICU took over and it wasn’t long before I could see Christopher’s chest moving up and down and he was transferred to the NICU for expert care. The time we spent in the NICU was not easy and I wish I had been better prepared for the whole ordeal.” Kim*

The Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU) is a place no parent wishes to see their baby in, but sometimes this is necessary due to a preterm birth or an illness. Here are some practical tips to help you navigate the NICU.

  1. Participate in your baby’s care and if you want more details on his condition or medical problems, speak to the nurses in the NICU – they are there to help. Also, feel free to ask your baby’s nurse to clarify any confusing medical terminology for you. Says Hannah, mother of Riley, born at 28 weeks of gestation: “When Riley was in the NICU, it was often the nurses who helped me understand the doctor’s comments!”
  1. Hold your baby If they aren’t stable enough to be held yet, you can talk or sing softly to them. Try not to be concerned with other babies around you. Keep your mind on your own little miracle.

“There are going to be cute moments and just because your baby is in the NICU, it doesn’t mean you don’t get to cherish those moments.”

  1. Bear in mind that your other children may feel left out or have very real fears of not seeing their sibling again. Although difficult, try to make time to do something with them that you know they will enjoy. Reassure them frequently that you love them, and you and your partner have enough love for all your children. They should be told that their new sibling loves them too.

    Tricia explains, “My sister helped my little boy of four draw a picture for his sister and helped him to ‘write’ her a letter, which he proudly gave to me. We also brought him a soft toy from hospital and told him his sister sent it. His beaming smile told me that this was a wonderful way to allow him to work through the emotions of Elle being in the NICU.”

  1. It can be challenging to keep your family and friends up to date on your baby’s progress. Let a close friend or family member help you. Try calling or texting just one ‘spokesperson’ who can update everyone for you. Don’t feel guilty for not answering a call or text. Hannah explains, “My mom started a WhatsApp group where only the group admin could post to keep everyone informed about Riley’s condition. This really helped me so much and our loved ones really appreciated the updates!”
  1. Keeping a journal is always a good idea. Not just to write down your feelings, but also to write down questions and answers or even to take notes of your baby’s behaviour, likes and dislikes, and feeding times and volumes.
  1. You and your partner are not always going to have the same feelings about your baby in the NICU. This can be a difficult period in your relationship and it helps to remind yourself that your partner is just as worried as you are. You may not share your partner’s feelings or understand their reactions but by accepting each other’s differences, you provide the kind of support and understanding that can promote healing and help keep the relationship strong. Open communication is of critical importance during this time.
  1. Allow your friends and family to help you! Have a quick coffee break with a friend in the hospital cafeteria or a heart-to-heart conversation on the phone with a family member like your mother. Your friends and family want to help you – let them. If they ask what they can do, ask for a meal to heat up for the family to take that burden off your shoulders.
  1. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) breast milk has many advantages for premature babies, as it contains immunities from the mother and many important nutrients. The AAP says breastfeeding your baby may result in a shorter hospital stay so try to offer breast milk to your baby if you can. Tricia says that although it was difficult in the beginning, breastfeeding Elle made a huge difference. “It made me feel part of her and made me realise that she does need me!” 
  1. Mementoes are important! Your baby will get bigger and stronger and you will forget how tiny they were if you don’t make memories. You might want a hospital bracelet, hat or blood pressure cuff. Photos are also very important! Take a lot of pictures (if it is allowed) of your baby. There are going to be cute moments and just because your baby is in the NICU, it doesn’t mean you don’t get to cherish those moments. (Remember not to use your flash when your baby’s eyes are open.) 
  1. Self-care for you and your partner is extremely important. Eat well and get as much rest as possible in this situation – and drink lots of water. Your baby needs you to be well! Take turns to eat or sleep – some hospitals only allow one parent with the baby, so utilise this time for self-care.
  1. Pay close attention to your health and the health of other visitors. Your baby needs to be protected from contagious illnesses. It’s okay to limit visits by friends and family members, or not allow them at all.
  1. Be respectful to other parents in the NICU – they are also going through a very hard time. Don’t ask them obtrusive questions about their baby’s condition.
  1. You will experience many different feelings when your baby is in the NICU. Feelings such as shock, disbelief, anger, guilt and depression are normal to have, but please speak to a counsellor if you are struggling with your emotions. Hannah says, “Sometimes just talking about it to someone who listens already makes a huge difference.” 
  1. Take each day as it comes. Your baby’s NICU stay will be a rollercoaster ride with a lot of ups and downs. There will likely be good days and bad days. Kim says that it is very helpful to try to focus on and celebrate your baby’s small accomplishments such as weight gain, increase in feedings, maintaining body temperature, etc. Embracing all the little victories can help make this journey a bit more bearable.

Having a baby in the NICU is tough. Try to face each day as it comes and remember that everyone in the NICU is there to help your baby get better.

Download the ‘Common terms and abbreviations used in the NICU’ here for free.

Other sources:

http://www.stanfordchildrens.org – Accessed on 20 October 2018
https://www.who.int – Accessed on 22 October 2018

Also read:

Too soon: Prematurity and early arrivals
The number of premature baby deaths is still too high. What can be done about it?