As with many first-time parents, I awaited the birth of my daughter with eagerness and expectancy. Having chosen to do a natural birth, I had my birth plan outlined and my doula lined up so that the birthing process could be as peaceful as possible. I looked forward to soon being home with my husband and little girl, and settling into our new family life. However, on birthing day, things didn’t exactly go as planned.
My daughter had released meconium — the baby’s first stool — into the womb, which she aspirated, coating her lungs and making her first breaths very difficult. Instead of getting to bond with my new baby in those precious moments after birth, she was rushed off to the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) and hooked up to a breathing machine until the meconium cleared. We didn’t know it at the time, but we’d get to know the inside of the NICU very well over the next several weeks.
In all my planning for birth and parenthood, a month spent in the hospital wasn’t something I had accounted for. As my husband and I sat by our daughter’s incubator, waiting for good news about her progress, I found myself struggling to stay clear-minded. Despite the well-intentioned advice of those around me, I denied myself care, desperately putting my energy into supporting my daughter. However, being there for your little one also means caring for yourself. Here are some things I learned that you can do to cope with life in the NICU if you find yourself there, as well.
Acknowledge Your Feelings
I had many people tell me to use this time where doctors and nurses were caring for my child to go home, take a shower and get some sleep — to enjoy this free time not allotted to most new parents. This sounded preposterous to me. How could I enjoy time to myself when my newborn was hooked up to a breathing machine? If you find people giving you this well-intentioned advice, as well, know that it’s OK to own your feelings. You don’t have to want to care about anyone except your child. However, also know that absolutely no one will judge you if you decide to take a few hours for some self-care.
Let Others Help
We were blessed by so many friends and family who asked what they could do to help us during our stay at the NICU. While it may be tempting to put on a strong front, use this opportunity to get the care and support you need. We had people bring us home-cooked meals, and friends who lived near the hospital offer us a place to sleep so that we could easily get back for feedings every 3 hours.
Learn All You Can
NICU nurses are lovely people and a wealth of information. During our time in the hospital, we learned the best way to change a diaper, administer liquid medications, give a bath and soothe our baby to sleep. While I would have loved to have been anywhere but in the NICU during those weeks, admittedly, we learned a lot about caring for a newborn that we would have had to figure out on our own.
Work As a Team
If you have a spouse or co-parent, work together to both be there for your child and give yourselves the time you need to recuperate. My husband would run bottles for every other feeding so that I could get some sleep. One of us would stick near the NICU while the other got food, so at least one of us would be there for updates from hospital staff. In general, we were there to cry together and process this hard situation we faced.
Communicate With Staff Respectfully Yet Firmly
In one low moment during our time in the NICU, when my post-birth hormones were raging, I found myself screaming at a poor nurse about something that wasn’t at all her fault. No doubt, you will be on an emotional roller coaster, and if you’re the one who gave birth, you’ll have out-of-whack hormones complicating matters. In certain moments, you may have a hard time keeping your emotions in check. However, do what you can to communicate clearly and respectfully with hospital staff.
Be present during round changes so you can meet the staff who is taking over. Ask questions about your child’s care, and take notes in a notebook if it helps you keep information straight. If something about the plan of care doesn’t settle well with you, ask about your options. Also, keep in mind that the doctors and nurses involved are doing all they can to get your child well, so even if what they do doesn’t align with how you pictured things, know that their goal is to see your child thrive.
Spending time in the NICU is not easy — from my experience, it’s one of the scariest things a parent can face. By allowing yourself to be present and supported by those around you, you’ll be able to show up for your baby. And that’s what matters most.