Babies can need NICU care for issues that range in severity – whatever the reason, parents may need some extra advice about how to work through this critical time.
Some couples anticipate spending time there, others end up there with no warning at all, but for any parent a baby’s stay in the NICU can be daunting. About 10 percent of all babies spend some time in the NICU. Babies can need NICU care for issues that range in severity, from low blood sugar to rare genetic diseases.
Though parents are thankful for the special care available to their infants, they may need some extra advice about how to work through this critical time. The following information was gathered from mothers who have been there and from medical professionals who share some of their medical perspective.
Some mothers report feeling fearful, disappointed and even guilty when they realize their child needs this kind of care. They need all sorts of reassurance. While family and friends may offer support, they may not understand what all the parents are facing.
It is so important for parents to connect with other parents who have already navigated the NICU system. Some hospital have their own support groups and mentor programs. Facebook and Meetup.com are great places to connect with moms who may have similiar experience, perhaps even with the same hospital, and will be able to share some insight. Support4NICUparents.org is also an incredible resoure put together by neonatalogist, Dr. Sue Hall and other medical professionals specifically for parents. And women should not hesitate to seek a counselor if they just need a non-judgemental listening ear to work through all of the emotions that come with this overwhelming change of plans.
There may be a lot of procedures happening that are unfamiliar. Parents should know they can ask what the procedures are for and how they are performed. It can help them feel involved and to be able to have a voice in the care of their child. Many parents recommend parents stay present as often as possible. This gives them time to speak with doctors during rounds, to meet nurses during shift changes and to be able to ask questions as they arise.
It will be helpful to know everyone’s name and ask questions until parents fully understand the answers. This also helps parents gain confidence in the skill of the medical team and have realistic expectations. They can know their baby’s condition and start asking to have skin-to-skin as soon as possible and perhaps even breastfeed. There may be cases where babies are not stable enough for this, but parents can always ask what ways they can stay involved. If parents are told they are not allowed to do a list of things, they should ask, “How can we interact with our child?” One mama friend emphasized that all parents should realize they are their baby’s best advocate and you only have options when you know them.
Stay Close By
Some NICUs offer family rooms so mothers or parents can stay near the baby. Often care providers recognize this is so important for bonding and increases breastfeeding rates, which benefits the health of both mother and baby long-term. If that is not possible, often hospitals will allow mothers to room in the maternity ward even after she is discharged so she can visit her baby throughout the day.
Another great resource is the Ronald McDonald House, which offers a room to parents while children are in the hospital. Sometimes the hospital Social Worker will provide meal vouchers or transportation vouchers to help couples stay near their baby. If parents are unable to stay near their baby, they may wish to leave a piece of clothing next to the baby so their scent is constantly present.
Dr. Sue Hall says that even if parents cannot hold their babies, they should read, sing and talk to them. This can help with brain, language development and bonding. This will be much more possible if parents are present throughout the day and night.
Breastmilk is so valuable, especially for babies with health issues. Mothers should start pumping immediately after the birth, even if the child is unable to latch and nurse. If they wait until a baby is well enough to nurse, her supply may suffer severely. Hospitals can provide electric pumps and lactation consultants to support the process of pumping, transferring and feeding a NICU baby.
Remember the importance of self-care.
Sometimes in this situation, a mother will forget she is recovering from birth and/or surgery and while her health is so fragile, she pushes herself to take care of their baby. Then, she may be readmitted to the hospital for an infection or recovery complication. Parents both need to do what they can to get rest, pull resources to take care of things at home, remind each other to rest and eat and shower. They should communicate openly about ways to recharge so they have a reserve of energy and joy to pull from during this trying experience. The better their own health, the better they will be able to care for their babies.
Parents will still need support when they get home as they adjust from unmet expectations and/or accept a new normal. The more involved the parents were during the NICU stay, the more equipped they will feel to care for their child away from the staff.
The birth of every child is a sacred time. Even when separation is necessary, parents should be certain they will be involved and respected during this period. The best first step to achieve this status is for parents to see themselves in this light.