Dear New NICU mom,
It hasn’t been very long since I stood in your shoes (okay, non-slip hospital socks). The day after my twins were born (at 32 weeks after a scary emergency C-section) I couldn’t make it to the end of a sentence without bursting into tears.
Back then, I spent long hours trapped in my hospital bed, while my baby boys were in their isolettes a world away upstairs. I would reach out to the internet for someone that would understand and tell me what I needed to hear.
Here’s what I was thirsting to hear then, and I hope it helps you now.
#1 This Sucks
It just really sucks and it’s okay to feel miserable.
We all spent our pregnancies dreaming about what a magical experience giving birth would be, and we didn’t get it. We dreamed about clutching our beautiful babies to our chests as they cried their first cry, and we didn’t get that either.
And it’s okay to feel totally crappy about that.
I had to wait for six excruciating hours to see my babies for the first time, and even when I did, it was through a layer of plexiglass and a tangle of wires. This is not what we dreamed about.
Every time I heard the healthy babies in the other postpartum rooms wailing their sweet baby wails, I’d burst into tears again.
It’s okay to cry. It’s okay for the nurses to see you cry. And your family. And probably just about anyone that walks into the room. The hospital employees are used to it (trust me!) and everyone else can deal. Don’t let them brush you off or tell you it’s ‘just hormones’… what you’re feeling right now is real and legitimate and it’s okay to express it however you need to.
#2 You Don’t Have to Worry About Anyone Except You and Your Baby Right Now
If you’re not ready for visitors, it’s okay to tell them no!
If you’re busy dealing with pumping, breastfeeding, medical setbacks, or even just needing to sleep, the last thing you might want is a bunch of people in and out and that’s fine!
And if they do show up, feel free to kick them out again whenever you need to. If they arrive 20 minutes before you need to start pumping and you want privacy, or your preemie is getting overstimulated, or you need to have a conversation with the doctors or any other reason- even if it’s your own mother and father and they drove an hour to be with you- it’s okay to tell them thanks, but it’s time to leave.
They’ll have a lifetime to see your baby. You have more important things to worry about at the moment, and if they really care about you, they will understand.
#3 It’s Okay to be the Germ Police
Preemies have fragile immune systems! Our hospital required visitors to have their flu and TDAP vaccines at a minimum.
Some friends weren’t able to visit because they didn’t have them. My amazing best friends went and got their shots just so they could come! It’s okay to tell people they’re not allowed to visit if they’re not feeling well or even if they’ve been exposed to something.
When my father-in-law had a cold, we wouldn’t let my mother-in-law visit either because she’d been around him and might be contagious even if she didn’t have symptoms yet.
It’s okay to be a stickler about hand washing. I also kept a box of alcohol swabs handy so people (including me, every morning!) could sanitize their nasty cell phones.
You are a mama bear and that baby is your cub! You don’t have to feel bad about protecting them.
#4 You are Not Obligated to Share Pictures of your Baby with Anyone if you Don’t Want to
We chose not to post photos of the boys online while they were lost in a sea of wires. I wouldn’t want a picture of myself in a hospital bed all over the internet, and I wanted to respect their privacy as well.
It was crazy how much backlash we got for this decision. People’s intentions are good- they’re hungry to see cute baby pictures. But if you’re not comfortable sharing NICU photos with the world, that’s okay!
The world can wait.
On the flip side, maybe you feel like you want to show off your gorgeous baby and people are upset by all the medical equipment in the photos. Those people can get over themselves, too.
Either way, the decision is yours to make!
#5 Staying Committed to Breastfeeding with a NICU Baby is Hard but Doable!
Moms choosing formula can skip this one!
Chances are you’re going to be stuck pumping, but don’t give up!
That milk is literally lifesaving for preemies! I pumped every two hours (plus at least once in the middle of the night) for a solid month.
When my babies came home I slowed it down to every 3 hours to line up with their feedings. It was crazy hard to plan my life around pumping sessions but I was able to supply everything the twins needed, and thanks to the hospital-grade pump, I even came home with a freezer stash.
The bigger they got, the more milk they needed, so getting ahead of them, in the beginning, ended up being crucial.
Here’s the biggest tip I can give you- cut holes in all of your bras! Seriously, take all your nursing bras (which are probably brand-new but oh well) and hack a little hole in the nipple area, just big enough for your pump flange to fit through.
Now you have a hands-free pumping bra that you can wear all day, every day. Line them with washable nursing pads so the hole isn’t an issue.
Here’s why that’s so important- because pumping is a pain, but if you make it hands-free, it becomes YOUR half an hour to sit somewhere, relax, and do whatever you want to do- read a book, watch TV, space out on your phone, whatever helps you chill.
Your breasts are working hard to produce milk for your baby, so it becomes a totally guilt-free break for the rest of you.
#6 Document this Experience
I highly suggest scrapbooking!
It may not feel like it now, but you’re actually going to want a record of this time.
I spent a lot of my pumping sessions while my boys were in the NICU working on their scrapbooks. Every couple of days I’d send a batch of photos to the drug store by the hospital, then I’d glue them into their albums and add some captions.
It was a really relaxing creative outlet for me, and it was also a really important way to celebrate all those little NICU milestones that don’t show up in generic baby books (first time wearing clothes, first time taking a full feeding by bottle, etc!).
Writing about them made it feel like my boys were making progress. Looking at the scrapbooks was a way to entertain visitors when the boys were sleeping, and even more importantly, because we kept the scrapbook near their isolettes, the nurses and doctors would often browse through them as well.
I liked that it gave their caregivers some context about who they were. I started their scrapbooks with our wedding photo, and I’d glued in some ultrasounds as well so it was really their story from the very beginning!
#7 Don’t Be Afraid to Decorate a Little!
Obviously, you’ll need to follow your hospital’s rules for this.
We were lucky enough to have the twins in a private room with a big windowsill that I could use to display some things. There wasn’t a ton of stuff, just their scrapbooks and a basket of children’s books, but it was enough to personalize the room a little and make it feel like “home”.
We also had some beautiful blankets, crocheted by a family friend, draped over the isolettes. They looked nice from the outside, and they gave the boys something interesting to look at.
We were not allowed to tape family photos to the isolettes, but if your hospital’s rules allow it, that’s another nice way to show your baby how much you care.
Remember that basket of children’s books I just mentioned?
It was crucial!
You may not be able to hold your NICU baby more than an hour or two a day, if at all, so most of your interactions will probably consist of you talking to them through the little portholes.
I don’t know about you, but I had a hard time thinking of things to talk about. I could only get so much mileage out of “I love your little face!”
The way I see it, children’s book authors get paid big bucks to come up with nice things to say to babies and I might as well take advantage!
I spent many happy hours in the NICU reading to my little boys. A side benefit- they still love to listen to stories at six months old. It’s never too early to encourage a love of reading!
#9 Share Music with your Baby!
I love singing to my boys. My husband doesn’t sing, but he loves to find and play new songs for them.
Listening to music together is a great way to bond, and benefits them in so many ways.
We have the best video of one of the twins, all three and a half pounds of him, wearing his goofy hospital hat and waving his arms in time to the Nutcracker Suite.
Those quality moments are what your family will live for.
#10 Quality Moments with your Baby are Important, but it’s Also Okay to Step Away
You can’t spend 24 hours a day by that isolette, you need to eat and sleep at a minimum.
You might have to take care of other children or even, if your baby has a longer stay, go to work.
I felt incredibly guilty every time I left my boys until the nurses helped me understand that preemies need rest and lots of it! Somewhere around 20 hours a day, they should be sleeping uninterrupted in their cozy little box. That’s how their tiny bodies heal and grow.
If you aren’t there, they’re probably sleeping peacefully. The nurses will tell you when your baby gets “hands-on care” like diaper changes and bottle feedings, so those are the times to try and be there if you can.
I also made a point of making it to the doctors’ rounds in the morning so I could hear the updates and discuss their progress and goals with their medical team.
The rest of the day, though, it’s okay to take care of yourself and the things that you need to do while your baby sleeps.
#11 Let People Help You, and Don’t Be Afraid to Tell Them What You Need!
If you’re like me, letting people help you might be really hard. But you need to concentrate on healing your own body and being with your baby. So the more you can delegate, the better.
When my mom asked what she could do I handed her two pounds of pasta and a stack of disposable containers. And she cooked us a week’s worth of lunches (hospital cafeteria food gets old.. and expensive!).
Other family and friends might be able to take care of things at your home, your pets, or even finish decorating the nursery if your baby came early and you haven’t had time yet. People genuinely want to help and will feel better if they can do something that really benefits them.
Remember that the hospital staff is there for you and your family as well! The social worker helped get us a room at the Ronald McDonald House so we could stay near the hospital instead of driving two hours back and forth every day. As much as I hated the feeling of being on the receiving end of ‘charity’, I will forever be grateful for that chance to be near my boys 24/7.
Our NICU’s “Family Support Specialist” was able to lend us some preemie clothes so we didn’t have to spend a bunch of money buying things they’d only wear for a few weeks.
And of course, the nurses taught us everything we need to know (more on that below) and were our boys’ biggest supporters, protectors, and advocates.
#12 Enjoy the Perks
The fact that your baby is stuck in the hospital instead of coming home with you is, obviously, an awful thing. And I don’t mean to minimize it. But it’s okay to also recognize that there are some weird silver linings to having a NICU baby and being a NICU mom.
Our boys came home on a strict, every-three-hour eating schedule, which meant I knew exactly when they’d be hungry. I could plan around it, and I had a solid two hours between feedings to sleep, eat or live my life!
The boys were also fairly easy to sleep train since they were already used to being in a crib. And best of all, after five weeks of living with the alarms, conversations, and general hospital commotion all day, they sleep through the noise! There’s no tiptoeing around at naptime in my house!
Another HUGE silver lining is the guidance of the NICU nurses, who are seriously the most amazing professionals on the planet. As first-time parents, it was so great to have one-on-one support as we figured out how to give baths and bottles and diaper their tiny preemie bottoms.
If you’re running into issues with pumping or breastfeeding, don’t be afraid to ask them to call the hospital’s lactation consultant, either.
We were able to master all those parenting skills so easily with the help of all of the hospital staff. And we came home feeling really confident in our ability to take care of our babies.
#13 You Will Make it Through This
The last silver lining deserves its own spot on the list.
You will make it through this. And that moment when you walk through the doorway of your home with your baby will be that much more amazing because of how hard you worked for it.
There is life after the NICU, and it is cozy and cuddly and awesome.
After having to say goodbye and leave the hospital every evening, you won’t even mind getting up in the middle of the night! You’ll just be grateful to be snuggling your sweet baby. You won’t ever take for granted how lucky you are to be with your child all the time.
I know I’ve used the phrase “it’s okay” a lot already, but here’s one more; it’s okay to let go of the guilt.
There were so many things I felt bad or guilty about doing while my boys were in the NICU. But I want to tell you that you’re in a new situation and the stakes are different.
The priorities have changed and you get to do things that you wouldn’t normally do. Some of the rules of politeness and obligation that apply in normal life go out the window right now.
You need to save all of your energy for your healing and your baby. So please, please don’t waste any “feeling bad” because you told a visitor to stay away or asked someone to do something for you.
If it protected your child or helped you, it was the right choice.
Don’t lose hope, NICU mom! Things are scary right now but they will get better. Babies beat amazing odds every day. Chances are good that your little person there will surprise you with how fast they develop and grow.
Have faith in yourself and your tiny human. These days are hard but- and I know it sounds cliche- they will pass.
About the Author
Stefanie (aka Firefly Magic) is a kindergarten/first grade teacher, currently enjoying a precious year as stay-at-home-mom to identical twin boys. She is passionate about encouraging kids to love reading and develop their creativity through fun and exciting activities. She writes a blog dedicated to books, craft projects, and sensory play. She’s especially obsessed with making crazy things out of cardboard boxes!