Do you remember your first peek into the neonatal intensive care unit, or NICU? Maybe your impression was like that of friends and family members I asked: “scary,” “surreal,” “Orwellian,” “war-zone,” or “heaven.” “Heaven?” I asked, and the mom’s eyes glistened. “Cause that’s where my baby is,” she clarified. Awww.
You’re not alone if you feel helpless because life has dealt you the NICU card. Having a child in the hospital rips through emotional defenses. Many refer to the experience as the NICU roller coaster. Quipped one father of a preemie, “Can you say trainwreck?” It’s so unnatural to leave the hospital without a baby in your arms. All your hopes and dreams of how it should feel are simply shattered.
Steps to Surviving
According to one mother of 24-week-twin girls, the secret to NICU survival is to learn to manage the minutes. “First you manage the minutes, then you manage the hours, then the days,” she mused. Wise advice from a mom who had cause to wonder if either or both of her twins would survive.
Adequate rest and good nutrition are the keys to mending. Moms need to recover from the birth and build back the blood lost in delivery. Estimated blood loss for a normal delivery is 250cc, or about 3 cups; double that for a cesarean.
Dads can help by providing a calm atmosphere for mom, who is physically spent, and now must also pump her breasts (another reminder of plans gone awry), often while recovering from major surgery. Of course, dads don’t get off so easy, either. Many partners won’t readily admit it, but they also have to cope with the emotions of the whole premature baby package.
There’s the financial stress on top of the concern for mother and child, despite The Family and Medical Leave Act, (which provides certain employees with up to 12 weeks of unpaid, job-protected leave per year) many breadwinners must keep working to keep all tummies full, especially if there are other children at home.
If your baby is in the NICU, try these parent-proven strategies for coping:
- Hunker-down, and simplify your life.
- When friends ask if they can help, give them a task.
- Don’t expect to accomplish too much while the baby is in the NICU. Frustrations mount when plans get pushed aside.
- Give yourself time to cycle through the grieving. Some days, the emotion involved with one procedure, or the wait for one test result, can ruin your day.
- Take lots of pictures.
- Be kind to yourselves.