What to Expect in the NICU

Any new mother doesn’t expect or plan to end up in the NICU. But for me, it became my second home for 46 gut-wrenching days.

The NICU is a rather elusive and rarely spoken about mystery to most parents. In fact, most parents never have to step foot on the NICU floor. The neonatal intensive care unit is a place for ill or premature newborn infants. They don’t exactly tell you in your birthing classes what to expect when the unexpected happens. Based on my own experience, here is a beginners course on what to expect if you end up in the NICU.

The First Few Days Will Be the Hardest

You are adjusting to everything new before you. You just gave birth – most likely not how you expected it to go – and you have this precious new life now, only they aren’t in the room with you. You are recovering and you are exhausted. While you sit in your bed, your mind will race as you try to figure out what went wrong. You are preparing for this new normal. You are scared and anxious. I’m here to tell you it is perfectly normal to feel this way.

That first wheelchair roll into the NICU floor and into your baby’s room will be a bit jarring. Your little guy or gal will most likely be inside an incubator and hooked up to 15 different cords. They may have a breathing tube down their throat.

You will be shocked by how fragile they look; as if they could break if you touched them. But it does get easier with time. And as time goes on, there will be less and less cords attached to your baby as they progress further along.

The incubator will be heated to help regulate their body temperature and a blanket may be over the top to keep out sunlight and/or room lights. You may not get to hold your baby right away or even for days. Just remember this is for their protection. At that first visit, you will get a full update on your baby’s condition, what to expect in the next few hours and days, and your baby’s outlook. Honestly, all I heard in the blur of information was “Your son will be just fine,” and there was a huge sigh of relief and many tears of gratitude.

You Will Quickly Learn that the NICU has a Security Equivalent to Fort Knox

There are cameras, speakers, and someone who lets you in and out of the doors after you identify yourself. There are nurses around all the time. Your baby wears a security bracelet around their ankle. Any visitors to the NICU need to be on a list and able to identify themselves. You will absolutely feel that your baby is secure here. You’ll also find glass sliding doors with curtains up. Ours had little trains on each door showing the current progress to going home.

There are constant musical tones sounding indicating the current heart rate, oxygen rate and other stats of each baby. They will become a tune you get accustomed to, and you will miss them when you come home. It’s usually quiet on this floor; as everyone is respectful of one another’s situation, and of course, keeping quiet so as not to disturb the babies.

What to expect in the NICUTo say it will be difficult to leave that room and the hospital to sleep, bathe, get the nursery together, possibly even return to work, is the understatement of the century. It will be heart-wrenching to leave your baby behind. I’m not going to sugar coat it. You have to constantly remind yourself that your child is under around-the-clock watch, getting stronger each and every day. They have the best nurses, the best equipment, and the best possible care right where they are. If anything goes wrong, someone will be there in an instant to care for your baby. You can also call to check-in and get updates 24/7. Do not hesitate to call especially when you cannot sleep without another update for the night. Most hospitals have social workers who you can ask to speak to if you just need someone to talk to. The nurses are also a wonderful source of compassion and encouragement.

Throughout your entire stay in the NICU, there will be a lot of information tossed your way. Do not hesitate to ask questions. Watch what the nurses do, get used to the schedule and routine inside the nursery. Be your baby’s advocate. If something doesn’t seem right, question it. The nurses communicate thoroughly with each shift change, but they are human and sometimes something small slips through the cracks. Ask to change the diapers, take your baby’s temperature. Talk to him or her often. Place your hand on their head to comfort them. If you’re there for any length of time, you will feel like an honorary nursing degree should be tossed your way because you’ll know all the terminology and will be able to talk shop with the doctors by week four.

Germs Will Become Your Number One Enemy

Finally, you will need a survival kit which includes a top-notch lotion, a comfy pillow, a blanket, a good box of Kleenex, snacks, cans of soup, a bowl, a plate, a cup, utensils, a straw and a phone charger. You will wash your hands and disinfect so many times they will become raw. If you are breast pumping or breastfeeding you will want every nipple cream on the market. If you have something to help you relax like music, coloring, meditation, journaling, or reading, those are great to have as well when you are feeling especially stressed or lonely.

Ultimately, take this experience one day at a time. Try to suppress the what-ifs and focus on the here and now. Focus on your little one and the strength they show you daily. Encourage them, cherish every moment you get to hold them, sing to them, and tell them stories. And remember to take care of yourself too. They will need you to be healthy and strong for discharge day and the rest of the newborn stage at home.

Jennifer spends time with her son, her parrot, writing, Netflix, art, and hikes are among her favorites. She has a career in marketing as well is a personal assistant, and founder of Lark Designs.

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