I'll never forget my last visit to my doctor before I had my baby. Up until that point, I'd had a fairly normal pregnancy. I mean, I had an unplanned pregnancy, but it was normal and healthy and barring the madness of processing all the change that was befalling my life, things were going swimmingly. Every previous check-up had been perfect — my baby and I were healthy and strong and more than ready to be formally introduced. But it only took two short minutes for our perfect track record to become a thing of the past.
When my doctor checked the heartbeat of my baby at this particular appointment, it sounded noticeably different. Instead of a steady thud, my son's heartbeat sounded more like Bob Marley was playing a set of bongo drums inside my belly. The doctor kept the sonogram wand on my stomach a lot longer than what he normally did, confirming my anxieties that my perfect pregnancy was over. "Let's have a look at him before you leave." he said. So I was escorted to another room where we could get a live look at him.
A few minutes later my doctor came back in the room with a different ultrasound machine, one that was for images, not just heartbeats. He placed the wand on my stomach and immediately received a jab from my son who wanted no part of the prodding. He scanned his brain, his lungs, and finally stopped at his heart to record the awkward rhythm of my son's heartbeat.
"It's probably nothing; just a basic arrhythmia. But just in case, we are going to have you closely monitored and your baby will likely spend some time in the NICU." he told me. As any mother would, I automatically jumped to the worst conclusion and panicked every remaining second of the week left in my pregnancy. My son was born right on time shortly after that, but my husband and I didn't have much time with him before he was carted off to the NICU. His birth was absolutely terrifying to me. I was scared and sad and completely unprepared in every way. I had prepared for everything but this.
I learned a lot over the following 24 hours, and the months of monitoring my son's health that followed. His time in the NICU was short, but the lessons I took away will stay with me forever. Here are 11 things you should know (that I wish I had known) if your child is (or is going to be) in the NICU.
Your Baby Is In Good Hands
NICU nurses are rock stars. Seriously, you guys, their skills are on an entirely different level of prestige and intellect, and their compassion is so real, so effortless that you genuinely feel more at ease while in their care.
The nurses and physicians are well-trained and completely capable of giving your baby the care they need. They're specially trained and don't make it into that ward without literal years of preparation beforehand. Your baby will be monitored 24/7 by multiple people, so in the event that they need immediate care, it is only seconds away.
It's OK To Be Scared
I'm one of the lucky ones whose baby spent a relatively minimal amount of time in the NICU, but it still seemed like an eternity. I was so exhausted from not sleeping and then delivering a baby that I could barely keep my eyes open, but I was so terrified that I couldn't sleep.
The thing is, it's OK to be scared. That's a perfectly acceptable and normal reaction to a NICU visit, which can be a pretty traumatic experience. Let yourself be scared. That's your baby in there and you have a right to worry.
It's Important To Take Care Of Yourself Too
I took several trips down the hall from my room to the NICU to see my son during our brief stay in the hospital. I was in a lot of pain, more pain than I felt like I should have been in but I didn't care because I wanted to see my son. But wow did that walk hurt, and not in the way that it was supposed to.
As it turns out, I had a tiny, itty-bitty crack in my pelvis from a mineral depletion that was a result of my back-to-back pregnancies and I made it worse by not resting like the doctor told me to. So instead of a quick recovery, I spent months of being in unnecessary pain because I refused to rest for just a couple of days.
The point: It's important to take care of yourself too, and it's OK to put yourself first for five minutes if you need a break. Your baby needs you and you need to be as close to 100 percent as you can be for them.
It Might Make Breastfeeding More Difficult, But There Are Ways You Can Prepare For This
Depending on why your baby is in the NICU, and unless you literally spend every single hour of your day there (they won't let you; I tried), you are going to encounter some difficulties while trying to breastfeed. If your baby is able to, nurses will encourage you to try to breastfeed as much as you can. However, since you can't spend every second there to nurse on demand, and breastfeeding is something that matters to you to make a solid go at, you're going to need to develop a schedule and make use of a breast pump.
I went to the NICU every two hours to try and breastfeed my son. He didn't do well with it, so I tried pumping in my room to get things going. In my case, my efforts eventually failed, but I'll admit that I wasn't diligent enough with trying because I just wanted to hold my son as much as I could without stressing over breastfeeding him. And that's really the best thing to know about BFing in the NICU: Do what you can, when you can, if you want. But ultimately, breastfeeding is really hard for a lot of moms even under the best circumstances, and being in the NICU for any amount of time is far from ideal. Don't be too hard on yourself. As the NICU nurses will undoubtedly assure you, formula is more than fine.
It's OK To Ask Questions
Your baby might be hooked up to a lot of equipment, sitting inside of what looks like a tanning bed, or even attached to a few tubes, and all of it can be scary and overwhelming. It's OK to ask the nurses and physicians questions. The more you know, the better off you and your baby are. Getting the answers to some of your many questions (trust me, you're going to have a lot) will help to ease some of your anxiety about your baby needing extra care, and it could even help you help him or her even more.
Getting To Know The Nurses Taking Care Of Your Baby Might Ease Your Anxiety Too
Get to know some of the nurses that are taking care of your child. There was one nurse who cared for my son who went above and beyond her call of duty with me. As I already mentioned, I was having trouble breastfeeding so she spent extra time helping me. She told me that her daughter had also spent some time in the NICU after she was born, but that she was still able to breastfeed her for two years. That encouragement helped and the more I got to know this particular nurse, the more comfortable I felt with stepping away momentarily while she cared for my son.
It's Totally Fine If You Want To Leave For A While
Speaking of stepping away, it's totally OK if you leave your child for a few minutes to take care of yourself. It can be overwhelming if you spend too much time in the NICU. It can really do a number on your sanity, so step out and get some fresh air from time to time. I promise, your baby is in good hands.
There Are Ways You Can Be Involved In Caring For Your Baby
Ask the nurses what all you can do to participate in some of the care taking. Diaper changes, story times, and skin-to-skin contact may all be options for you, and it will make you feel so much better knowing that you're still able to be your child's mother, even though you can't tend to their every need just yet (don't worry, there will be plenty of time for that eventually).
Talk To The Other Parents In The NICU
Other parents going through the same thing as you are the best support system you could ask for. Knowing that you're able to talk to someone who's going through something similar, who is equally stressed and sad and worried, can weirdly offer you a bit of relief during a very difficult time.
Thinking Positive Is Great, But Also Allow Yourself To Feel Sad Or Overwhelmed
Sure, send your baby all the positive vibes you've got, but keep in mind that you're only human. It's OK to crack, to break, to cry. It's OK to feel sad or angry or overwhelmed. Allow yourself to feel everything — you don't have to be strong all the time.
Accept Any And All Support
The circumstances surrounding NICU visits vary in their length and severity. You might not be there for very long at all, or...you might. If you're going to be there longer than you first thought, it's important that you accept all the support you're offered, whether that's just a cup of coffee and an adult conversation, a meal, or an errand runner — just take it. It will make your life easier and give you more time by your baby's side. Don't ever feel guilty about accepting help. Take all of it that you can get.