Parents do many things to prepare for the arrival of a new baby – decorating the nursery, buying a car seat and stroller, selecting a name and so much more. No matter how much preparation you do, the unexpected can happen. Due to a variety of reasons, you could find yourself in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU) sitting by your newborn baby.
When I found out I was expecting triplets, I was told it was highly likely they would spend time in the NICU due to premature birth. I had absolutely no idea how to prepare, the information was overwhelming and the uncertainty was frightening. I have found the true experts are parents who have been through the experience. The information they share gives you a glimpse into what you can really expect during the NICU experience. Here are some of the most valuable tips.
When you visit your child in the NICU for the first time it can be very intimidating. Your baby will be covered with wires and may look tiny and fragile. It is normal to feel nervous about caring for your child. Ask the NICU nurses how you can get involved in your child’s care. They are usually more than willing to teach you how to work around their medical equipment. “Once I began taking my son’s temps, changing diapers and assisting with bathing, I felt so much more comfortable and less intimidated by the experience.” Rachel Watts says.
Babies progress at their own pace
“Don’t put a timeframe on how long you expect them to be there.” says Nikki Rhyme, mother of triplets born last year. The rule of thumb is that babies born prematurely will typically go home around their due date; however, this is not always the case. Jessica Craine, mom of twins says “Anytime I was frustrated I had to sit back and realize that my boys have learned to breathe, suck, and swallow all before most kids are born.”
Take care of yourself
When your child is in the NICU it is easy to be focused on their health above all else, Amidst all the struggles we must not forget Mom just gave birth, often by emergency C-section and sometimes after weeks of bedrest. Take care of yourself during this time. Eat healthy meals, drink water, take breaks, spend time with your significant other and older children and ask for help. “Tell your friends and family you’re struggling and you need support.” says Rachel. Many times they want to help but they won’t know what to do unless you ask. Give them specific tasks that will make your life easier, like preparing a meal for your family or doing a load of laundry.
Document this special time
The NICU is a stressful place which makes it easy to forget to document the milestones your baby meets “Record the true day of their first bath, when they wore clothes the first time, when they moved from an incubator to a crib,….these are memories I will cherish forever!” says Jessica. “I wish I had more photos of this time.” says mother of triplets, Alex Tichet. Although it is hard to see your tiny baby fighting in the NICU, many parents cherish those photos because they are proof of how far their amazing and strong child has come.
Be your child’s advocate
“Remember they are your babies, and you have a voice in how things go. Don’t be afraid to ask questions.” says triplet mom, Michelle Glasser. The doctors and nurses work hard to give your child the best possible care but the parent plays a big part in the care their child will receive. “Try to be present during rounds to get updates on the baby’s status and care.” says mom Courtney Harreld.
Some of the things you see will be heartbreaking “I wasn’t prepared for some of the things we saw and neither was my husband. We could see the doctors working on babies to save their lives. Incredibly heartbreaking.” says Jenna Mrnak, mother of triplets. It will be difficult to witness some of the things that go on in the NICU as babies struggle to grow and thrive. It is best to take comfort in the knowledge that miracles happen there.
It will end
Eve Bernfeld, mother of three, says “A great piece of advice I got from my best friend who had also had a NICU baby – picture yourself and your baby a couple seasons in the future when you are doing something totally normal. This helped to remind me that things would be normal …. someday.” Each day in the NICU seems like an eternity, but when your child comes home and the years go by, that time becomes a distant memory. “It seems like it is a never ending experience, regardless of whether it’s 5 days or 5 months, but it will be a thing of the past before you know it.” says Jennifer Pena.
Our NICU experiences were one of the most difficult seasons my family has walked through. Even so, I find myself looking back on it fondly because I am more aware of how miraculous life is. It is a stressful place to be, but the NICU staff is there to do everything possible to get your baby well and home with their family.
Sarah Lyons is a proud mother of six who writes from her home in a suburb of Kansas City. The inspiration for this article comes from her experience in the NICU after the birth of her 2 year old triplets.
Editor’s note: Last edit August, 2022. First published in 2017.