When a baby is born early (prior to 37 weeks, in most cases) or they are born sick, they will likely need to stay in the NICU — neonatal intensive care unit — for an indeterminate amount of time. It’s certainly not the way any of us picture our child’s birth going down, but birth is notoriously difficult to predict, and...it happens. 11.7% of babies in the U.S. are born prematurely (that’s about 1 in 8), while 3% are born with birth defects, both of which are common things that land a baby in the NICU. Additionally, babies born with other health conditions are also admitted into the NICU. These conditions might include jaundice, anemia, bradychardia, or trouble with feeding or body temperature regulation.
Nothing can prepare you for the NICU. It will be an incredibly intense time. You will learn a lot about yourself and your baby in the process. I’ve personally had both of my babies in the NICU: My first was a micropreemie (who passed away shortly after birth); My second baby spent 2 excruciatingly long months in recovery from Persistent Pulmonary Hypertension (he is, fortunately, a happy and healthy toddler now). Basically, I’ve been there and I've done that, and I hope to never do it again. But for now what I can do is give others some of the info that would’ve helped me during my stay there. Here’s what others might not tell you about you and your baby’s NICU stay:
Not Going Home With Your Baby In Your Arms Right After Their Birth Is Seriously Depressing
This is probably a given, but it really, really sucks.
Every Day In The NICU Is A Damn Rollercoaster
And not the fun kind, either. My son’s first week in NICU had us all constantly on edge (both his parents and his medical team). They couldn’t figure out why he kept getting high fevers, his heartbeat would inexplicably rise then go back down to normal, and we were frequently worried he might not make it. Not every experience is like this, but when it is, it’s just the worst.
You Will Likely Become Dizzy Trying To Remember All The Names Of Your Baby’s Medical Team
My baby wound up in two different NICU wards, each with their own set of nurses and doctors. Depending on your child’s condition, you might meet a plethora of specialists, plus the day and night team. Do your best, but none of the staff will blame you if you still can’t remember their names weeks later.
You Can’t Visit If You’re Even Remotely, Potentially Sick (And There’s Good Reason Why)
While something like RSV isn’t a big deal for adults, it can be fatal for babies in the NICU. If you suspect you’re sick, don’t go. If you know a loved one is sick (or has just been sick) and wants to visit, tell them to stay home. It’s not worth risking the health of your baby or any of the other babies there.
Many Hospitals Offer Rooms With Pull-Out Couches Where You Can Sleep Next To Your Baby
Every hospital differs, but the second NICU ward my son was in had a couch with a pull-out bed that I spent many (uncomfortable) nights on. But still, being that I lived 30 minutes away from the hospital, it was worth the neck pain to be so close to my baby.
Your Friends And Even Family Will Probably Suck At Consoling You (Even If They Try Real Hard)
People will try, but in the end, it’s mostly just you (and your partner, if they’re involved) truly understanding the pain of a NICU stay.
...But You’ll Realize That Those Who Remain By Your Side Are The Ones Worth Keeping In Your Life
True friends, as we all know, are hard to find. Tough experiences like enduring a NICU stay really make them stand out.
The Milestones You Celebrate Will Be Much Different Than Those Of Non-NICU Babies
The first time they allow you to stick your hand in your baby’s isolette to touch their tiny fingers, or the moment they’re extubated, or the first time you get to feed them all on your own... These moments will be burned into your memories and give you a level of excitement that parents of healthy babies will probably never understand.
Not Being Able To Hold And Comfort Your Baby When They Need It Is Agonizing
Worst pain ever, especially when nurses and doctors are allowed and all you can do is watch.
...But As Soon As It’s Allowed, You Can Request To Do Kangaroo Care As Often As Possible
Kangaroo care is basically holding your baby skin-to-skin and has been medically proven to reduce mortality in NICU babies. It also feels amazing.
The Nurses Will Try To Be There, But Sometimes They Will Fail
I found my baby crying more than once without a nurse in sight and it killed me. Some hospitals just don’t have enough nurses for every baby, or sometimes there’s an emergency in a different room, or quite frankly, some nurses are just better than others. NICU nurses are more trustworthy and capable than pretty much any other humans on the planet, so trust them, of course, but also know that they are human and don't expect more from them.
You’ll Probably (Want To) Get Into A Fight With One Of Your Baby’s Medical Providers At Some Point
Stress runs high in the NICU and when it feels like a doctor isn’t doing the best job, you might say some unpleasant things. Try to avoid this. Take a walk.
You’re Allowed To Ask For Second Opinions Or Even Call A Meeting With Your Baby’s Medical Staff To Come Up With A New Plan Of Care
If you are truly concerned about your baby’s care, you can ask for another neonatologist’s opinion. When my baby’s medical team thought he should remain in NICU for another few weeks due to feeding issues, I called a meeting to request his NG-tube be removed so he might feel more comfortable during bottle feeds, which I felt would aid in his recovery. They finally gave the OK, and he came home days later. Be vocal and they will listen if your requests are reasonable.
You’re Allowed To Ask For Certain Nurses To Be On Your Baby’s Service
If you have a preference, go ahead and ask! They might not be able to accommodate your every request, but hey, it can't hurt to try,
You’ll Feel Guilty Often — But You Really Shouldn’t
Remember: This is not your fault. You'll probably need to tell yourself that roughly 5 billion times.
You’ll Become An Expert In Your Child’s Condition
You’ll be given so much medical info about your baby that you’ll practically start to consider med school afterwards. I mean, you could basically pass your medical board exams right now.
...And If You Stay Long Enough, You’ll Get To Know Every Single Thing About The Hospital
You’ll know which food places stay open late in and around the hospital, where the good vending machines are, the best places in and out of the NICU to take naps, how to get free or reduced parking...basically everything.
You Might Feel Happy For (But Also Secretly Resent) Parents Who Get To Take Their Babies Home Before You Do
It’s normal to feel this way. Don’t beat yourself up about it.
In Most Cases, You’re Allowed (And Encouraged) To Breastfeed Or Pump In Your Baby’s Room With Hospital-Provided Machines
Lactation consultants will also be open to helping you breastfeed and pump in your baby’s room. Ask your baby’s nurse for more info.
...And The Nurses Can Usually Store Your Breastmilk In Their Fridge Or Freezer
NICU nurses will usually give you special containers to store and label your breastmilk so either they or you can feed it to them later.
Your Hands Will Never Be Cleaner (And Your Skin Will Never Be As Dry As) When You’re Constantly In The NICU
Because you have to spend 5 minutes scrubbing the hell out of your hands with special brushes, your skin will suffer. Make sure to invest in some hand lotion.
When The Medical Team Gives The OK, You’ll Be Allowed To Do Small Things For Your Baby, Like Change Their Diaper
Changing a NICU baby diaper while they’re in an isolette, with all these wires on their bodies, is not an easy task, but I swear you will want to do it the minute they offer just so you get to take part in your baby’s care.
...You’ll Also Probably Be Allowed To Bring In Your Stroller And Take Them For A Walk Around The NICU (When They’re Ready)
This was one of the best and most encouraging surprises of our stay.
There’s A Chance You’ll Develop Some Form Of PTSD While There
It’s been two years and I still freeze when I hear certain beeping sounds that resemble the machines my son was hooked up to. Birth and NICU-related PTSD are very real.
You Might Be Asked To Complete Certain Requirements (Like Take An Infant CPR Class) Prior To Taking Your Baby Home
Do it ahead of time so you don’t have anything holding you back from taking your sweet one home.
If (And When) Your Baby Is Ready To Go Home, A Nurse Can Push You In A Wheelchair While You Hold Your Baby (Just Like The Other Moms)
I asked for this. I just needed the closure.
Once It’s Over, It Will Feel Like A Long-Ago, Distant Dream
And you’ll be glad it does.