How to survive your child's time in the NICU
Written by: Julianne Neely
Photo credit: Evelyn/Flickr
While many NICU stays come as a surprise, sometimes parents are told to anticipate their child needing specialized care in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU) in advance. Leaving the hospital without your baby is never easy, whether you had the opportunity to emotionally prepare for it or not.
For parents anticipating this very stressful and challenging time, l have compiled a list of resources to reduce stress, increase bonding and make the process as smooth on the family as possible. This list of resources and advice comes my experience as a NICU mom and from a fantastic group of attachment and trauma therapists I have the privilege of working with.
Connect with other NICU moms right away—they will be a great source of support and advice during your journey. Search Facebook for groups and connect with local moms through parent groups like NPN.
Visit Centering.org for resources. There's a section specifically for NICU babies. You'll be able to find some children's books and maybe even a coloring book or activity book to flip through with older children.
Have a friend or family member bring you a clean washcloth or tiny baby blanket, or even two small matching ones. Sleep with them for a night or two and then give one to any children who will remain home while mom is in the hospital. It'll be a nice way for them to feel connected to you while you're not with them. Then, when your baby is born, ask the staff to put one in your baby's isolette. Depending on the hospital's infection-control policy, they may take it out after surgery, but they can put back in later.
Sing to your baby. There has been some research into the effectiveness of singing to your baby in the absence of being able to touch them. You don’t have to have a wonderful singing voice or even know all the right lyrics, words are not as important as the tempo. Consider buying a small voice recorder to allow your baby to hear your voice even when you are not physically present.
Create a narrative. I started putting together a Shutterfly book in the NICU to describe our experience. Also talk out loud with your newborn about her birth experience, the fearful transition away from you, the confusion of the new location and, most important, your joy of meeting face to face for the first time. That story is so important and healing, for both of you.
Start conversations with your not-yet-born infant. If you find out while pregnant that your baby will spend time in the NICU, explain to him all that is about to happen, make guesses about how these things might feel to him (for example, that he might worry the grownups aren’t ready for him, or that he might worry they are trying to get him out before he’s ready). You don't have to get the words perfect, but you do need to occupy some of your energies with mentalizing this unborn child while communicating your assurance that you will be there when he comes out (even though you worry—and he knows it—that you won’t). You need to tell him all about the c-section, about who will be taking care of him, and how you will hold him in your heart when you can’t be right next to him. You do have the power to communicate with him, and to hear his “voice” back.
Put some family pictures by your baby's bedside or even tape them onto the sides of the isolette. It will get the NICU staff talking about you to your baby when you're not there.
Use kangaroo care as much as you can. Healing Touch is incorporated in the US and, given the research supporting it, most or even all NICUs are doing this. Healing Touch is the only accredited energy medicine, and most of the research has been gathered in hospital settings. It's usually just reserved for Mom and Dad.
Find out the visitation rules for the NICU before your baby is born. Are there visiting hours? Can your other children come, too? What about extended family and friends? Get as much info as you can now so you feel prepared later.
Figure out the parking situation. If you're going to a city hospital, parking may be expensive or complicated. Look into it. If family or friends are offering to help and you don't know what to say, ask for a ride to the hospital for visits. Or, often friends chip in for a "parking fund."
Pump if you can. Your milk supply may increase if you pump while looking at a photo of your new baby and if you have your baby's scent nearby. So, actually, get a third clean washcloth for the staff to put in your baby's isolette for a day or two and then give to YOU to hold onto. Repeat as necessary. Also, drinking lots of water and/or Mother's Milk tea can help increse supply. Check with your health insurance company to find out whether it will cover the cost of a hospital grade double electric breast pump—it's the most effective and most efficient pump out there. Since it's medically necessary for you to pump, insurance will likely cover it.
Don't forget about Dad. He is going to be very worried, and deeply frustrated by the limits on his ability to assure safe passage for the new, sick baby. It will be very important, later, that history shows (to himself, and to Mom) that he stood strong, and that he protected his children and his partner.
Trust the staff. See if the NICU will assign a primary nurse to your baby so there will be as much consistency as possible in his/her care. Also, remember that the nurses and docs will lovingly care for your baby. Even when you're not there, they will tend to her cries and use beamy pillows and other tools to help your baby feel the sensation of being held, even if baby isn't stable enough to be moved around and cradled in their arms.
Take it from me, it will be hard and it will be scary, but you will get through it. The NICU is a beautiful and terrifying place.
Julianne Neely MSW, LCSW, is a business owner, special needs mom, foster-adopt parent and pediatric therapist. Julianne has become the leading expert in pediatric mental health in Chicago, where she owns and manages Individual and Family Connection. At IFC, she has the privilege to manage a team of amazing clinicians who are passionate about working with children and seeing them thrive.