I still remember sitting outside the NICU (neonatal intensive care unit) and shedding tears for my son. The NICU is a specialized hospital area equipped and staffed for taking care of newborn babies who are preterm or born with medical complications. My son was taken there because he had low birth weight (3.7 lb), was small for his gestational age, and had meconium aspiration syndrome (troubled breathing because meconium got into the lungs).
It was the hardest time of my life. I’d become a mom for the first time and longed to hold my baby. Instead, I watched him in the incubator, which was heart-wrenching. I was beyond scared to see all those tubes attached to his tiny body. Gradually, I summoned my courage and played an active role in his recovery.
Based on my personal and professional experience, let me share with you how you can survive the stressful time of having your neonate in the NICU.
Why are babies in the NICU?
Immediately after birth, the medical staff examine the baby, and if they detect or suspect any illness or complication, they may refer the newborn to the NICU.
Some common reasons why a baby ends up there include:
- premature birth
- low birth weight
- hypoglycemia (low blood sugar level)
- respiratory problems (e.g. respiratory distress syndrome, meconium aspiration syndrome)
- Intrauterine growth restriction (IUGR)
- heart defects
- feeding difficulties
How long does a baby stay in the NICU?
The duration of NICU stay depends on the medical condition and progress of the child. It can range from a few hours to many weeks.
As for premature babies, their stay might extend to several months.
Research indicates that the mean duration of NICU stay for a neonate in India is 7 days. In the European region, the NICU stay for preterm babies can range from 54 to 70 days. In the US, the average stay in NICU after birth is 13.2 days for infants born at 39-41 weeks and 46.2 days for babies born before 32 weeks.
Can you visit your child in the NICU?
Parents are usually allowed to visit their babies in the NICU. The doctors and nurses on duty guide them on how they can touch or hold their child. In case of serious medical complications or very preterm babies, you might have to wait for your child to get stable enough before you can hold him or her.
Visiting a NICU for the first time can be quite stressful-you see many newborn babies in incubators or open heated beds, with many tubes and machines attached to their tiny bodies. NICUs usually have dim lights and a sound-controlled environment because any sensory overload can overwhelm the babies. Try to be quiet and calm and follow the staff’s instructions.
Please follow the standard operating procedures (SOPs) of the NICU upon entry as it will help protect all the babies from infections. You might be required to wash or sanitize your hands and wear a protective gown, head cover, gloves, and slippers.
How to bond with your baby in the NICU
A light touch can be very soothing for you and reassuring for your newborn. Make it a point to visit them regularly. If you have twins or triplets in the NICU, you should visit and bond with each baby separately.
Hold your child in the way you’ve been instructed. Even if your baby has some tubes attached, a nurse will help you do it in a safe manner. In case of any severe medical complication, you might not be able to hold your infant. Even then, though, you can discuss with the nurse or doctor on duty how you can touch or hold the hand of your baby.
It’s important to bond with your child in the NICU as this can speed up their recovery. Moreover, you’ll get to know your baby better.
Here are a few suggestions for bonding with your baby in NICU.
- Breastfeeding: It not only provides nutrition and improves the immune system of your baby, but it also strengthens your bond. The child begins to recognize your touch and smell. If your baby has feeding difficulties or can’t be breastfed directly, discuss with a lactation expert alternative ways of giving breast milk to your child.
- Taking care of your newborn: You might be allowed to change diapers, clean, feed, and take care of your child inside the NICU. This interaction will help in building a connection between the two of you.
- Observing your child’s responses: With assistance from a nurse, try to learn how your child expresses their hunger, discomfort, pleasure, or need for sleep. This will help you handle your baby efficiently when you go home.
- Talking to your child: Research indicates that talking to premature babies while they’re in an intensive care unit can help them progress more quickly and get good scores on development tests related to thinking, cognitive abilities, and language skills.
Can you stay with your baby in the NICU?
Some hospitals have rooms where parents can sleep at night, while others have waiting areas designated for parents with children in the NICU. If you live near the hospital, you can even visit your baby daily. My husband or brother used to drive me to the hospital every day so I could see my son.
If you’re not feeling well after delivery, your husband and other family members can step in to provide the physical contact and support your baby needs. Constant interaction with the NICU medical team also plays an important role in the speed of your child’s recovery.
How to manage the emotional stress
Watching your newborn baby in the NICU can be an extremely stressful, even harrowing, experience. I was overwhelmed by all sorts of fears and you may go through the same. Right after delivery, a new mom tends to be mentally and physically weak. Some mothers are already facing the baby blues, and learning about their child’s medical complications can make life look utterly miserable.
The following strategies can be helpful in reducing your stress:
- Take good care of yourself. Having a baby means that your body undergoes a transformation. Do not ignore your own rest, diet, and medication. Your child needs you the most, and you can’t take care of them unless if you’re strong and healthy.
- Discuss your fears with the doctor. Make a list of your fears and discuss them with the doctor. It will help in getting a realistic view of the situation.
- Calm down. Try to calm your nerves and control your stress by going for walks, listening to music, talking to a friend, doing breathing exercises, or praying.
- Keep a positive mindset. Look at your baby’s stay in the NICU as a blessing in disguise. Your child is safer from infections there and receiving quality medical care under the supervision of trained professionals. You have more time to look after yourself and prepare for your duties as a new mother. You have access to lactation support and other maternal support. Your baby will most likely have an established routine of sleeping and feeding by the time they are handed over to you. Plus, your older children will become more accepting of the new family member.
What to do after going home from NICU
When you’re allowed to take your newborn home, the medical staff will provide guidance on medicines, diet, and visits to the hospital. Ask any questions that spring to mind.
You should also collect contact details for home-based or emergency services in your area. This information can help you get the necessary support at home.