Having a baby in the NICU is beyond difficult.
You have spent several months imagining how your new mom life is going to be like, and suddenly it’s looking very different from what you had in mind.
It doesn’t matter if your baby is staying one day or one month. Every day apart from your new baby is as difficult as it can be.
When Oliver was born, he spent 43 days in the NICU, and after a week home, he was readmitted for another couple of days!
It didn’t get any easier as the days progressed, but it got more livable.
We all fit into a routine that helped us to cope with being away from our baby, and with the uncertainty of his medical prognosis.
Here are a few NICU survival tips based on our experience. I sincerely hope they can serve you on your own journey and make it more livable for you as well.
So, What’s the NICU, Anyway?
The word NICU stands for Neonatal (or Newborn) Intensive Care Unit.
It’s a place in the hospital where a group of nurses and doctors are ready to care for newborn babies 24/7.
Every NICU is different, and each hospital has its own set of rules and schedules.
Babies can land in the NICU for many reasons, when your baby is admitted to the NICU, either before or after delivery a doctor will come and explain to you the rules, risks, and conditions of your NICU.
It will be overwhelming, so give yourself some time to ease into it.
When I signed the papers for my NICU, I didn’t even understand what I was signing for.
It took some time to get adjusted to it all!
Who Works in a NICU?
The NICU is filled with people who are there to help you and your baby. It’s important that you know everyone involved in your baby’s care.
The following people typically work in the NICU:
Charge Nurse: who is in charge of the other nurses, your NICU schedules, admissions, discharges, and basically runs the place.
Nurses: who have special training on newborn baby care, take care of your baby’s basic needs and assist the doctors and surgeons in all the procedures.
Lactation Consultant: a trained professional in helping new moms breastfeed successfully.
Social Workers: they will help you with your NICU stay. They can give you emotional support and help you find resources and services to make your life much easier during your time in the hospital.
Neonatologist: A pediatrician specialized in newborn babies.
Occupational Therapist: An OT will be in charge of helping your baby feed, swallow, and move his legs and arms.
Ophthalmologist: premature babies haven’t developed their vision to a newborn level, so these doctors are specialized in tracking their progress and intervening if there’s anything out of the ordinary with the development of your baby’s vision.
Pediatric Cardiologist: As it happens with the eyes, many premature babies may need special care and tracking to make sure their hearts evolve favorably.
Surgeon: in case NICU babies need surgery.
Speech and Language Therapist: I know, I also wondered why would a speech and language therapist be relevant to the NICU. But they are crucial in helping newborns with any feeding issue.
NICU Survival Tips
Now that you know a little bit about the NICU and its staff, it’s time for the NICU survival tips every parent should know about.
#1 Be Your Baby’s Voice
During the course of your NICU stay, decisions will be made on a daily basis for the sake of your baby.
Most of the time, the decisions are small, like which cream to use in case of diaper rash.
No matter the matter, you get to vote, you are your baby’s voice, so make sure you understand the consequences and weigh in with your opinion.
I’ll give you a real-life example.
In our case, our son had a PDA, a common heart condition in premature babies that can be solved by surgery, or on its own.
We talked to two doctors, one suggested to wait it out a few weeks to see if it closed on its own, the second one suggested surgery.
Since it wasn’t an urgent matter, we took a couple of days to decide and we decided to wait it out.
It eventually healed on its own.
Some times, however, emergency protocols had to be activated and we couldn’t choose.
For instance, when Ollie was 3 days old his lungs collapsed because of an infection and he had to be intubated.
This was an emergency procedure to save his life, so naturally, we didn’t sit down and discuss the pros and cons.
You’re not always going to be able to give your opinion, but that doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t weigh in with what you think it’s best for your baby.
#2 You Can Take Care of Your Baby, Too
In some cases, NICU parents can’t even touch our babies for days or weeks.
Some times, all we can do is sit by the incubator and sing lullabies or read books.
But that’s totally fine and a vital part of the process of NICU baby care.
Your baby just lived inside you, so they will know your voice more than anyone else’s.
And the familiarity of it soothes them.
There will come a time, however, when you’ll be able to do more.
You’ll be able to change your baby’s diapers, give him a finger to suck on, breastfeeding him or hold him.
When it does, don’t be afraid to tell the nurses to teach you all these things!
By the end of our NICU stay, I was expertly taking care of my son because I asked the nurses tons and tons of questions!
#3 Learn About the NICU Rules and Schedules
Not all NICUs are the same, nor do they have the same rules.
In our NICU, for instance, we couldn’t take pictures or spend the night!
I eventually found a workaround and took a few pictures, but I had to make other sleeping arrangements.
All NICUs will have a visitor’s protocols (in my NICU only mom and dad could enter, and grandpas could visit on Thursdays for 30 minutes).
Absolutely every NICU will ask you to wash your hand several times a day, especially as soon as you get in. And people with flu symptoms are never allowed in.
NICUs can also have feeding schedules, and they usually close when there’s a staff shift change.
Whatever your NICU rules are, they are there for a reason, so understand them and follow them as best as you can!
#4 Enjoy Today
In the NICU, you need to enjoy today.
The second we got in, I was desperate to know how many days would we be in there.
Nobody ever told me, because they themselves couldn’t know!
In fact, we knew that we were going to be discharged one day before it happened.
Have you heard that the NICU is a rollercoaster? It’s because there are usually setbacks.
Oliver moved two steps forward and one step backward constantly.
And as the weeks progressed nobody seemed to know for sure what would happen the next day.
The nurses told us things like he couldn’t be off the ventilator for a week at least, and in the third day, he was off the ventilator.
Oliver seemed ready for feeds one day and was back on IV the next because he had rejected the milk.
These are only two examples, but they serve to illustrate the unpredictability of the NICU.
So, take it one day at a time.
Focus on your daily tasks, it’ll make everything a helluva lot easier.
#5 Understand That Every Baby Is Different
Do you know what was painful? Seeing parents come and go with their babies.
I mean, I was happy for them, but I so wanted that to be me with my baby.
We had a moderate stay at 43 days, but during those days we saw many babies come in after Oliver and leave before him.
It was a blow every time.
If this is happening to you, think that every baby is different and matures at her own rate.
If being there longer than other babies it’s what’s best for yours, then so be it!
#6 Celebrate Every Milestone
Every milestone is a huge cause for celebration.
Things that look small to non-NICU parents, mean the world for us.
Some milestones that we celebrated:
- When Ollie was off the ventilator.
- When Ollie was off CPAP.
- When I could touch him for the first time.
- When he accepted the milk.
The list goes on and on… you see, they were all very big steps for our preemie. So we celebrated them.
We sent messages to our family and friends, and hubby and I sat down in the hospital cafeteria and drank a cup of coffee in celebration (decaf, for me!)
#7 Talk to the Doctors
Make sure you understand your baby’s condition through and through.
Request meetings as frequently as possible with your doctor to talk about progress, setbacks, or changes in your baby’s health.
You’ll advocate better for your little one if you know as much as possible.
But don’t get ahead of yourself, try to not overthink about the risks, focus on your baby’s current health conditions.
When your NICU discharge comes close, take advantage of these meetings to understand how to better care for your baby at home.
#8 Plan Your Sleeping Accommodations
It’s crucial that you sleep well while your baby is in the NICU.
If it’s possible for you, try to stay close to your hospital during your baby’s stay.
If you don’t live near the hospital, ask if they have any sleeping accommodations for you.
Some hospitals have rooms for parents to sleep while their baby is in the NICU, if this is not an option, the social workers can help you stay at a Ronald McDonald House or at a hotel with a discount.
You can also always ask for the help of family or friends if they live near the hospital.
#9 Get All the Help You Need From Your Lactation Consultant
One of the upsides of having a NICU stay was that I learned a lot about breastfeeding.
So much so that I treated my own clogged ducts when I was at home, I was able to increase my breastmilk supply, and eventually went on to have a healthy and lengthy breastfeeding relationship with my son.
Not too shabby.
All because I learned everything I could during our NICU stay.
Our pumping sessions were in the presence of our lactation consultant, and she taught us all she could about pumping.
I additionally asked her about the most common problems breastfeeding mamas had, and how to treat them. She taught me how to recognize clogged ducts, how to treat them, and how to recognize the early signs of mastitis.
When I left, she gave me her number so that I could reach her if I ever had any questions.
Ask if you can call your lactation consultant when you’re at home if you need anything, she probably has a line you can reach her in when she’s at the hospital.
#10 Ask Questions To The Nurses
Noone in the NICU has taken care of more babies than the nurses.
So you can take advantage of that.
They can teach you everything about your newborn, how to bathe him, how to change his clothes, his diapers, how to treat his umbilical cord, how to recognize when he is hungry, and all that baby care 101.
As with the lactation consultant, make sure you get your NICU phone number to call any time you have any question once you’re home.
#11 Connect With Other Parents
They will understand what you’re going through because they are going through something similar.
Some will have it easier than others, but every mom and dad out there will want to be home with their babies.
Talk to them during meal times or whenever you have a chance to rest.
You’ll be amazed at how supportive they can be.
I’m still in touch with a few other parents from my NICU.
We have celebrated our children’s birthdays and milestones together and we keep supporting each other three years on!
#12 Keep a Journal
A journal not only will work as an outlet for your soul but one day you’ll want to remember it all.
Having your baby in the NICU may not be how you pictured the first days of your baby to be, but they are the first days of your baby after all.
And you will miss it, in a way.
I was at first too worried about my son to even think of keeping a journal, but once things picked up the pace, I started writing about our adventures.
It not only got me through the hardest days at the NICU, but it also serves today as a way to remember the good things we lived together at the time.
#13 Take Pictures
My NICU didn’t allow pictures, but they weren’t very strict about it.
So we started taking some pictures and videos.
As with the journal, we see them often to remember our son’s early days.
#14 Develop a Routine
A routine is predictable. The NICU isn’t.
So, it’s a good thing that within all that NICU chaos, you can find some predictability about your daily activities.
You pump, talk to other parents, get some skin to skin, get some sleep, breastfeed your baby.
And there’s a place for a schedule around it all.
If you’re curious, you can read about my NICU day to day life here.
#15 Ask for Skin to Skin
Skin to skin contact has many benefits for you and your baby, and most NICUs encourage as early as possible.
The snuggles with your little one will lift the worries of your shoulders.
Ask your nurses how often can you do skin to skin, and do it as much as you can.
#16 Accept Help From Friends And Family
Those who love you will also love to help you.
So let them.
You need to focus on your baby, they can help you with the rest.
While Oliver was in the NICU, my mom did all the cooking and cleaned my house.
We only had to worry about getting to the hospital and taking care of our son.
It also helped us financially, since we were able to bring homemade meals every day and avoided buying food at the hospital.
If you want to learn our tricks for financially surviving the NICU you can read this article.
#17 Spend Some Time Away from the NICU
I know you want to be there all the time.
I did, too.
But spending some time away from the NICU every single day can give you some clarity and perspective on your baby’s specific situation.
It can help your relationship with your spouse, too. You can use your time away from the NICU to go on mini-dates with your partner, even if all you do is talk about your newborn baby.
Spending time away from the NICU can also be relaxing.
And I’m guessing you could do with some relaxation!
#18 Let Go Of the Guilt
If I had to say the most recurrent feeling while we were at the NICU, I’d say guilt.
I felt so guilty that my son had been born prematurely.
Whenever there was a setback I’d feel guilty.
I felt like I wasn’t doing enough, and leaving my son under the care of others was nerve-wracking.
I started doing some meditation and I started understanding that it wasn’t my fault, that things had come to this because of reasons beyond my capabilities, and that I was doing everything I could for my baby.
I can’t say I stopped feeling guilty, but I felt less guilty.
And it helped Oliver just as much as it helped me because I was able to be more present for him.
#19 Take Care of Yourself
If you’re well, your baby has a better chance of doing well also.
So sleep, eat, and rest.
Spend some time with your partner, call a friend, for your own therapy group. Do whatever you need to be emotionally present for your baby.
Our initial feeling is pouring ourselves over our babies and forgetting our own health in the meantime.
But you can’t pour water out of an empty jar, so make sure to take care of yourself.
That’s a Wrap
All in all, what’s important is both yours and your baby’s health, and the NICU can be scary, but it can also be the place where so many miracles happen.
Do you have a preemie? You can get a guide on preemie milestones by signing up for my mailing list! It’s complete with warning signs and month by month trivia!
To sum up, in case you jumped to the end (no hard feelings, I do it, too 😉 here are my 19 tips for surviving the NICU (although if you do have time there’s some valuable information up there in each of these tips):
- Be your baby’s voice.
- Take care of your baby, along with the nurses.
- Learn and follow NICU rules and schedules.
- Enjoy the present.
- Understand that each baby is different.
- Celebrate every milestone.
- Talk to the Doctors.
- Plan your sleeping accommodations.
- Get all the help you need from your lactation consultant.
- Ask questions to the nurses.
- Connect with other parents.
- Keep a journal.
- Take pictures.
- Develop a routine.
- Ask for skin to skin time with your baby.
- Accept help from friends and family.
- Spend some time away from the NICU.
- Let go of the guilt.
- Take care of yourself.
What are your own tips and struggles for coping with NICU? You can tell us all about it in the comments below.