Dear NICU mommy
Welcome to the (initially) terrifying world of NICU. I’m not going to lie and say that it gets easy, but I will tell you that it does get easier. Your encounter here will shape your life in ways you have never imagined. I want you to know that you are not alone, that there are people who understand what you are going through, even when at times it feels as if your own family and friends do not.
A friend had her delivery yesterday, her bundles of joy arrived a little early and have been placed in the care of the NICU team. Their sudden arrival brought a flood of emotions back and I was reminded of just how utterly terrifying and overwhelming the NICU can be when you first encounter it.
There are so many emotions to deal with when you have delivered your baby. Whether you had a simple, uncomplicated pregnancy and birth, or as in my scenario, the complete and utter stuff up of pregnancy and birth, nothing, no matter how well prepared you may think you are will have you ready for walking into that NICU for the first time to see your baby. It is one of the most daunting encounters of your life.
Every fibre in your body is telling you that your baby should be firmly secured in your arms and latched onto your breast. Instead, she is firmly secured in an incubator and latched onto all forms of tubes, lines, probes and IV’s, the sight of which will terrify you and make you want to snatch her right up and protect her from all the hurt and pain that has been so unfairly inflicted on her so early in her life. You do not know or understand what any of the machines attached to her are telling you. All you see above her are a collection of machines that have various different readings which are flashing and beeping, you have no way of understanding any of them yet, if any one of them beep at any given moment your heart skips a beat, it starts to flutter and you find your breath catching while you are trying to understand what exactly it is trying to tell you. When an alarm triggers and the nursing staff seem not to react, your initial instinct will be to scream and shout to get their attention, clearly something is very wrong so why are they not reacting fast enough… I promise you, they can hear it and they know exactly what is critical and what is not. Trust them, it’s not easy, it takes time but if you want to keep your sanity, learn to trust them and get to know them.
You will also be torn by incredibly powerful emotions in the early days. You will feel totally and utterly inadequate and helpless. Your natural instinct is to hold your child in your arms, to protect them, to nurture them, to soothe them. Instead you have had to place all of your trust in the hands of total strangers, and that can be terrifying, regardless of how qualified and trained they may be. It is against your natural instincts to leave your child in the care of someone else, particularly someone that you do not know. So my advice is to get to know the nursing staff who are caring for your baby. Depending on the duration of your stay, these men and women will become a part of your family, you will laugh together, cry together and celebrate together.
You will, in all likelihood, be within a few metres of NICU for your first evening or two after your delivery. If you had a caesarean this is utter torture for the first 24 hours as you will no doubt be lying flat on your back and feeling utterly useless at being unable to see your little miracle. This feeling of hopelessness is impossible to explain to your partner. Once you are allowed to stand and walk you will be torn between recovering from your delivery and standing beside the incubator. You won’t take this bit of advice, I didn’t either, but take this time to rest up. You might find yourself in NICU for a while and you’ll be of no use to yourself, your baby or the nursing staff if you are not well rested and recovering.
You’ll be thrust into the world of foreign terms like CPap, TPN, NG Tube, Intubation, Blood Gas, Saturations, osscilator, EBM and plenty more. None of which will make sense to you but do not be afraid to ask the staff what these all things mean.
And speaking of EBM, this stands for Expressed Breast Milk. This will become a part of your daily routine. Whether you use an electronic pump, a manual hand pump or use special massage and hand techniques, you will be expressing every 3 hours of the day and night for anywhere from 10 to 30 minutes every time. The nursing staff in maternity will tell you how vitally important your first few drops of milk are and you will cry because you will lose those first few drops and you will feel like a total failure, being hooked up to foreign devices instead of your baby is cold and clinical and something that you weren’t expecting to be a part of your experience, working through it is tough, keep things on hand that smell like your baby or look at pictures of her while you pump away.
If you are a long termer such as me, you will sit back and watch babies and their mothers come and go, watching them go home is hard, you will be divided in your emotions. You are so thrilled that a happy little family has been united and are leaving and you are utterly and hopelessly envious of the fact that they get to leave while you get to stay behind again and that feeling of envy will eat at you and makes you feel unbelievably guilty and petty.
There will be days when your babies progress will occur in leaps and bounds and you feel swelling pride for them, there are others where they take steps back and it feels like you’ve had a swift kick to the stomach and there are days where it sometimes feels as though no progress is being made at all.
The stress, anxiety, fear, joy and elation of this journey will be hard to explain to your friends and family, confiding your feelings and experiences to them are sometimes difficult and not well understood, which is why I recommend joining any local support groups that your NICU has formed, or a forum created for moms in similar situations. I have met some truly inspirational women in this journey, their strength and resilience has pushed me forward, seeing their babies grow and thrive outside of the NICU is inspiration and serves as a reminder that there is a light at the end of this tunnel.
You and your miracle will graduate from NICU, you will have become stronger from this journey, you will never forget your experience here, it will have made you reassess what is important to you in life. You will survive this journey!