When my girls were in the Newborn Intensive Care Unit (NICU) I struggled a lot with my emotions.

I vividly remember one moment:  

I had a couple friends who were planning to come visit so I was sitting in the lobby waiting for their arrival so we could all walk back to the NICU together. While sitting there – totally fine – a huge (extended) family flooded the lobby waiting-room. There were about 15 people all-together:  aunts, uncles, sisters, brothers, nieces, nephews, cousins, etc. They surrounded me, taking up every chair in the lobby. It was impossible not to overhear their excited chatter at the anticipation of meeting the newest little member of their family just born that morning. Not long after their arrival a Dad emerged from the Recovery Wing of the Labor & Delivery unit. He proudly strode over to where we all sat, pulled out his cell phone and started showing off pictures of his son. He happily announced weight, length, and declared how “perfect” the little boy was.

I had to excuse myself. I walked outside and willed myself not to cry. I did not succeed. I stood there, still wiping tears from my eyes, when my friends arrived. Confused by my emotion, I tried to explain to them my encounter:  I’d been sitting alone when this family bombarded me – taking over the waiting room with excited anticipation of meeting a new baby due to go home the next day, while mine were still “stuck” in the NICU for an indefinite period of time. It just didn’t seem fair. Life can feel so cruel sometimes.

I reached out to many people while my babies were in the NICU. I somehow took comfort in talking to others who’d had babies who had “graduated” from the NICU. I commiserated with them over the relentless routines of hand-washing and sanitizing, and almost begged for advice on how to handle it all….silently pleading them to tell me that it would all be okay and that our NICU stay would be over soon enough.

And I’ve just had a “first” – another parent has just asked me for my advice on “surviving” the NICU. It’s a bit of a hodge-podge of advice I’d received from others with some of my own personal touches mixed in.

Here’s my advice:

  • Be your baby’s advocate. The first time I tried to breastfeed Bailey, I knew she didn’t get any milk. She couldn’t ever latch properly and I was new and inexperienced and I didn’t know how to help her! For some reason the nurse didn’t want to believe me and kept insisting Bailey had gotten enough food (I swear – she didn’t get any!). I know missing one meal wouldn’t kill her but I didn’t want her to be deprived; at the same time, I always assumed the nurses and doctors knew best. Luckily my Mom was with me and was able to kindly, yet firmly, insist that Bailey be fed by gavage (which is how she’d been fed previously). The nurse was condescending and rude and made a big huff about it, but Bailey got to eat. This little anecdote is just meant to show that YOU know best! Obviously the doctors and nurses have all the medical training, but that doesn’t mean you are naive. Its YOUR child and you spend more time with him/her than the doctors do! Nobody loves them like you do and nobody will be their advocate like you will. Plus, they’re worth it!
  • Try not to be overwhelmed. Having a baby in the NICU is no picnic. I resented when people told me, “enjoy the sleep while you can” because I was already waking up every 3 hours to pump breastmilk for my babies. Having a child in the NICU can be quite overwhelming and the schedule is not easy! But I think I had it easier than a lot of people because of my non-traditional job. Over the summer I taught an online class (key word = online) and was doing statistical analyses completely on my own schedule from home. If you have a limited maternity leave, you’re going to have to make some tough decisions about where to spend your time. Obviously you want to be with your child in the NICU as much as possible, but if you have limited time off work you may decide you would like more of your maternity leave to be spent once your child actually comes home from the hospital. Even without having to face that decision, I still found it helpful to devise some sort of schedule. The hours pass far too quickly and its easy to stay at the hospital all day long, but life doesn’t stop:  laundry and dishes pile up, groceries still need to be bought, and you’ve got to take care of yourself, too. Establishing some sort of routine (keeping in mind that you must be flexible) can help keep you from being overwhelmed by the situation.
  • Find a support system. It’s easy to feel alone. I reached out to pretty much anyone I knew who’d had babies in the NICU (and, surprisingly, it turns out I knew quite a few!), but you could also find a support group or turn to friends and family. Regardless of where you find your support, I think knowing you are not alone and that others have survived the NICU as well makes the whole experience much more bearable.
  • Pamper yourself. If you’re anything like I was then you’re at the NICU all.the.time!!! Find a moment to sneak away. While baby sleeps – run off and get a pedicure. Or get your hair done. Or get a massage. Whatever helps you relax and/or makes you feel good about yourself. As hectic as your schedule is now, its probably going to become even more difficult to find that time to steal away after the baby comes home, so do it now!
  • Find the silver-lining. It’s easy to become depressed when your babies are in the NICU. We all have good days and bad days, but it helps to find the silver-lining. Celebrate the mini-milestones (e.g., Yay! Off the oxygen!!) Be thankful for the food-schedule that will make life so much easier when baby comes home. Be thankful that there’s a supportive and caring staff watching your baby in the early days so you can heal and recover from delivery. Be thankful that we live in a day and age that your baby is getting the quality care that he/she needs to survive!
  • Spend quality time together. Do skin-to-skin contact. Breastfeed if you can. At the hospital where my babies were born the NICU had little “family rooms” where we could all hang out together for an hour. Do whatever you can to get that quality time together, rather than just stopping by to feed them and leave.
  • Make friends with the nurses. Bring them food. Be nice. If they like you they will start to request your baby. It’s important to have a good rapport built with them so you know someone is caring for your baby that actually cares about them, ya know?

And that’s it! Its tough to have a baby in the NICU, but ultimately its important to remember that “this too shall pass.”