When Expecting Parents Face the Unexpected: Valuable Tips for NICU Parents
By Sarah Lyons
According to Parenting magazine, each year 10-15% of babies born in the U.S. are admitted to the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU) due to premature birth, heart defects, infection, or breathing irregularities. “Between constantly worrying about the health of your baby, the overwhelming amount of doctor appointments during a high-risk pregnancy, and the loneliness of it all, it will be important for parents to take care of themselves during this time,” says Liza Young, Licensed Professional Counselor from Watershed Counseling Associates of Jackson, MS.
While parents do a lot to prepare for the birth of a child, learning about the NICU is typically not on the to-do list. In the US alone, there are roughly half a million babies admitted to the NICU each year. For this reason alone, it is wise to educate yourself. Here is some advice the parents who have been through the experience would like to share.
When you visit your baby in the NICU for the first time, you will see equipment that is beeping and flashing, babies covered in wires look tiny and fragile. Feelings of intimidation about caring for your little one are normal. Ask the nurses how you can get involved in your child’s care. The more parents get involved the more they bond with the child and begin to feel comfortable as a parent of a NICU baby. “Talk to your NICU team about your feelings: they are not new to this and can offer support. Most hospitals have a social worker or chaplain that you can reach out to as well,” suggests Young.
Don’t give up hope
The rule of thumb is that babies born prematurely will typically go home around their due date. However, this is not always the case. NICU babies have to learn to breathe, eat, suck, swallow, and maintain their own body temperature before they are released. “Never give up hope. When given statistics of survival rate or chances of your baby having one of many major health concerns or developmental delays, it can be hard to stay positive,” says Katie Bain whose daughter was born at 23 weeks gestation. She recommends seeking out support groups that are filled with positive outcomes. “Read the success stories and hold tight to the hope that one day your baby will have one of her own.”
Take care of yourself
Filled with concern for baby’s health, it is easy to forget that the mother has just given birth, often by emergency c-section and possibly after weeks of bed rest. Eating regular healthy meals, staying hydrated and getting adequate rest are key to recovering and handling the stress that the
NICU experience often creates. Talk through your feelings with others and seek professional advice if needed. “You may not feel any emotions due to the shock of it all,” says Young. “You may feel like you’re in a dream or that it’s not real. Try to pace yourself and talk to the NICU staff, family, and friends about your experience to lessen or prevent the flooding of emotions that could happen once you’re no longer in survival mode,” suggests Young.
NICU doctors save lives
“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 of Bowman, ND. NICU doctors are truly saving the lives of babies on a daily basis. Currently the survival rate for NICU babies in the US is 98%. Thirty years ago that number was closer to 25%. While heartbreaking to witness, the statistics are encouraging and there’s comfort in the knowledge that miracles happen there.
It will end
Each day in the NICU seems like an eternity, but when your child comes home and the years go by, it fades into a distant memory. “It seems like it is a never ending experience whether it’s five days or five months. But it will be a thing of the past before you know it,” says Jennifer Pena of Atlanta, GA.
Four years ago, 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. Our NICU experience was 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.
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 experiences in the NICU after the birth of her four year old triplets.