The three weeks my son spent in the NICU were some of the most stressful of my life. I'm not sure which felt worse — having him whisked away before I even got to hold him properly, or leaving him behind when I was discharged from the hospital less than 48 hours later. The separation was made all the more heartbreaking by the fact that with NICU babies, you don't know when you'll be reunited. And in my case, I also had to deal with the fact that the answer to the question of whether or not parents were allowed to sleep in the NICU was a no. Some moms are a little luckier in that regard than I was, but it really depends on your hospital.
The two NICUs I've unfortunately spent time in with each of my children both had a similar set up: a wide open bay with babies in rows of incubators. Moms and dads were welcome to visit at pretty much any time of the day, except for an hour in the morning and evening when the nursing shift changed over. Visiting my babies meant sitting in an extremely uncomfortable metal chair (my butt hurts all over again just thinking about it), and trying to section off a little area to breastfeed with a couple of privacy screens. Nothing about it was fun, but you gotta do what you gotta do.
Private NICU rooms do exist, according to the March of Dimes, but I don't personally know anyone who's ever been in one. That could be changing, however. Today's Parent reported that hospitals are starting to recognize that private rooms have major benefits for babies and their families. It improves breastfeeding success, helps reduce infections, and get babies healthy and on their way home faster. If you've ever been in a NICU, you'll remember the cacophony that all those monitoring devices beeping 24/7 make — a private room would significantly cut down on all that noise, making it easier for babies to sleep.
The Children's Hospital of California also noted that babies are able to gain more weight, subsequently leaving the hospital at a higher weight when they're in a private NICU room. Even better, they end up needing fewer procedures and appear to be calmer and less stressed. It's all thought to be directly linked to having mom close by. I'm tempted to be a little jealous of parents who had the option to stay in the hospital with their babies, but really, I know there's nothing enviable about being in the NICU, private or not.
Thankfully, there are some resources that help make the situation a little more manageable for families who can't stay in the hospital. My husband and I were lucky enough to get a room at the Ronald McDonald House for one of my son's hospital stays, and there were plenty of NICU parents there with us. If your hospital has a local RMH, you might be able to spend the night just a short walk away, and get free meals and other amenities on top of it. Most ask for a token donation per night, but will typically accommodate you regardless of whether you can pay or not. If your hospital doesn't have an RMH but it's too far away to drive to the NICU every day, local hotels sometimes offer a discount.
All in all, it really depends on the hospital facility. Some might offer a vacant room within the hospital for stressed parents to get a little bit of extra shut eye in without having to leave the building, while others will be super strict about what they can offer. Your best bet is to speak with a social worker and the hospital staff about all your options and decide what is best for you and your family.