Nothing quite prepares you for the moment when you, the new mom, are released from the hospital ... without your newborn. You look longingly at other new moms, the ones who had their babies sleep next to them in their hospital rooms, the parents who have their arms filled with babies and bundles when they're discharged, while all you have is a lone suitcase.
Having a baby head to the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU) can be extremely difficult. Parents—particularly emotional, post-partum moms—don't get that same bonding time in the first few hours and days of their baby's life. They come home to face an empty cradle with a silent mobile dangling above, or even cheery balloons happily announcing the baby's birth even though the baby's not there. If you aren't staying near the hospital where your baby is being cared for, you're looking at daily commutes back and forth to the NICU, going home each time with empty arms and an empty infant seat.
Regardless of the severity of your child's diagnosis, having a baby in the NICU is a rough road. Know that the way will be paved with emotion, and that tensions will inevitably be high. Here are a few tips to surviving your infant's days in the NICU from a parent who had her newborn twins in intensive care for a total of three weeks:
Interactions with NICU staff
- Ask questions and take notes
If you've just had a baby, you're likely in no condition to be carrying on spontaneous, high-level, cogent conversations with neonatologists about your fragile infant. However, in order to successfully serve as your child's advocate and to fully understand his diagnosis, make sure to ask the medical staff every question you have, no matter how silly you may think it to be. Keep a notebook in which you can record the information the staff is telling you (also useful for future reference), as well as any new question that pops into your head. This will help you organize your thoughts and stay focused.
- Know the NICU routine
At what time do shift changes occur? Is there a head nurse in charge of your child's case? How do nurses and doctors communicate with one another and pass along parental questions and concerns? At what phone numbers can staff be reached so you can check up on your baby and ask further questions? When does your child get fed? Do they use pacifiers? Do they allow visitors? Once you know what the NICU routine is, it will make it easier for you to plan your time there.
- Make sure your expectations are clear
If you wish your baby to have breast milk and it's medically okay for the child to have the breast milk, make sure that every nurse who comes in contact with your infant understands this. If you don't mind your child having a combination of breast milk and formula, or just formula alone, make that clear as well. Ditto for other issues like the use of pacifiers. You're going to have to deal with this infant once she comes home, so if you feel strongly on these issues, discuss them with the staff.
- What are the rules?
In some NICUs—again, depending on the newborn's condition—parents are allowed to change their newborn's diapers, give him sponge baths, sing lullabies to him, read to him, feed him, and bring in stuffed animals, special infant clothing or items that have Mommy's scent. Ask the nurses in your NICU if you can do these things for your child and make sure that you know how these things fit into the baby's schedule. For example, some hospitals may want a NICU baby to have a sponge bath every few days. If you want to be there or you want to administer the bath yourself, find out when the staff will be scheduling the bath. It's also good to know if the NICU doesn't allow stuffed animals or other personal items so you don't go to the trouble of picking something out only to have to bring it home.
- Find a nurse you trust
The NICU medical staff changes shifts frequently. Every nurse may have a different opinion on how to handle different situations. Sometimes nursing styles may clash with the styles of emotional and stressed parents. If you find that a particular nurse isn't responsive to you, isn't abiding by your requests or hasn't explained why the requests cannot be followed, appeal to a staffer with whom you've developed a bond. This person may be able to intervene on your behalf. Additionally, feel free to request a face-to-face meeting with the neonatologist in charge of your child's case if you are unhappy with your child's care, or you aren't getting your questions answered.