What?! I can’t have my baby tonight, I’m only 23 weeks! This is what I told my doctor when she said I was in active labor, fully dilated, and my son was breech. I didn’t know much about pregnancy before getting pregnant, but I did know you are supposed to carry your child for about 40 weeks. 23 weeks ain’t it, I wasn’t ready for a baby in the NICU! There are no words to describe the horror I felt as I was laying in the hospital bed, listening to the doctor tell me about all things that could be medically wrong with my son. My doctor goes on to say that my fiancé and I have only a few minutes to make a decision. Either I have my son vaginally and they only offer comfort care (no resuscitation), or I have an emergency cesarean section and they do everything iC their power to save him.
We decided on the latter. I remember being rushed to an operating room and given anesthesia. Hours later my fiancé was standing over me as the doctors brought my son in. I was able to see my son, through an incubator, for about 5 minutes before he was transported to a hospital with a level 3 Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU). Because of his gestational age, they were unsure of the care he would need, and wanted to get him to a hospital that was fully equipped to take care of him. Because I just had surgery, I was unable to be transported with him. The next 24 hours were the worst 24 hours of my life because my baby was in the NICU.
I had my son on a Sunday night at 10:22 pm. I wasn’t transported to his hospital until Monday night after 9:00 pm. You never forget the first time you see your child in a NICU. I was filled with awe. Here is this tiny 1lb 7oz human that I fell in love with before I even knew who he was. I remember always wanting a girl until I found out I was having a boy. Something about a mother and her son. Let me keep it real though, I didn’t feel joy the entire time I visited my son. I felt excruciating pain. I felt a tremendous amount of guilt. I had one job and that was to keep my unborn child safe… In my eyes, I failed. Mommy guilt is so real ya’ll! I now know that to be an irrational thought. My mom sent me several beautiful prayers for premature babies. His dad and I held hands and I recited those prayers to our son. And, I cried like a baby!
Everything was all good until the nurse came in to discuss my discharge. Wait a minute! I’m not ready to go! I even told her, “ma’am I don’t think I can leave yet, my breast pump hasn’t been delivered yet!” Anything to stay near my son just a little while longer! Nevertheless, I was discharged from the hospital that Wednesday. This is not what I pictured at all! When you have a baby, you AND your baby are supposed to leave right? This wasn’t my story, I had a baby in the NICU.
NICU life is hard. You are going to laugh, you are going to cry, you will feel extreme excitement and unimaginable fright while you have a baby in the NICU. You can, and you will get through it! Premature babies are some of the strongest babies! He or she will fight, and you will too.
Here are a few tips that helped me while we rode the NICU rollercoaster.
Healing is rooted in connection– talk to the other NICU parents. After all, they know firsthand what you’re going through. You’ll find that many will share the same emotions and can give you some encouragement, especially if they’ve been there longer than you.
Explore your spirituality– connecting to your higher power during this time can be beneficial in many ways. I must say, this was my saving grace. I don’t think I’ve ever prayed so much in my life! Exploring for you may include praying, meditating, daily devotionals, etc.
Lean on your support system– allow the people who love and care about you to be there for you. They mean well. You can also join social media groups for NICU parents, or ask the NICU staff if there are any support groups they can refer you to.
Participate in your child’s care– this is a great way to feel useful while your child is in the NICU. Ask to change diapers, take temperatures, bathe them, anything that they will allow you to do. I still have the footage of when I changed my son’s diaper and put his first piece of clothing on. Kangaroo care, also known as skin to skin, is another way to bond with your baby. Your baby will grow & change so fast! Take pictures and videos of everything!
Seek counseling– as a licensed therapist, I understand the power of therapy. If your NICU has a therapist on staff, maybe consider making an appointment. A simple Google search can also help you find a therapist in your area.
Take care of yourself- your child is being cared for as a baby in the NICU and pampered by nurses who adore them. Implementing self-care is essential right now. This may even include not going to the hospital one day. There will be some days you don’t want to go to the NICU. I’ll go ahead & say the thing that no one says, you ready for this…… DON’T GO! This is a part of self-care. I used to think the nurses would think I didn’t love my baby if I didn’t visit every day. That was so far from the truth! My son had amazing nurses who encouraged me to take care of myself. You can’t pour from an empty cup. Be intentional about filling your cup with activities that bring you joy.
Keep a journal–journaling is a great way to organize and express your feelings in order to move through them. You can use your journal to keep track of your child’s progress from day-to-day. It’s great to look back at those entries to see how far they have come because on the not so good days, you’ll need a reminder. I also used my journal to write letters to my son once I left the NICU for the day. I will share these with him when he’s older.
Ask questions- by the end of your NICU journey, you may feel as though you have taken a course to become a medical professional! There will be so many medical terms the doctors and nurses will use and it can be overwhelming. Don't be afraid to ask questions! It may be helpful to have a notebook handy where you can write down questions to ask the care team. In the moment it may be hard to think of questions to ask, but I'm sure all questions come to mind once you're home for the day. Write them down!
Set boundaries– we talked about your support system, and they are a blessing, but remember that this is your baby and it is okay to set boundaries. It’s ok to not allow anyone (this includes grandparents) to hold your baby or touch their hands and feet. It’s ok to tell some family and friends that you aren’t allowing visitors just yet.
In closing I want to say this, give yourself grace. You won’t get it right all the time. You’re not perfect, you’re not supposed to be. Take it one day at a time. Enjoy this time with your baby because one day you’ll look back and say, “where has the time gone.” From one NICU parent to another, YOU GOT THIS!!