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November is National Prematurity Awareness Month. Did you know that one in 10 babies in the United States is born premature? Preemies are babies that are born anytime before 37 weeks gestation. Some preemies born close to the 37 week mark adjust to life outside the womb easily without additional medical support, while earlier preemies may require extensive care in the neonatal intensive care unit. No two prematurity journeys are the same – but every NICU preemie parent knows the unique anxiety-ridden rollercoaster of having a baby in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit. We’ve supported countless parents of premature babies. Here’s our NICU guide for parents.
Lots of times, prematurity is a complete surprise. In the whirlwind after your child’s early arrival, there will be lots of new faces, medical terms, and hospital wings to get to know. This will be an incredibly stressful and disorienting time – give yourself ample grace. You’ll be recovering from birth yourself, so it’s absolutely essential that you are well taken care of.
The hospital will provide you with an orientation packet of NICU policies, procedures, and medical terms. Read through it as best you can, but it’s okay if it takes some time to soak in. Ask lots of questions and get to know your baby’s nurses and doctors. Staff will familiarize you with NICU etiquette, like frequent hand-washing and cell phone use. Many NICU parents agree that their baby’s medical team quickly grew to feel like family.
If you know in advance that your baby will need to arrive early, ask to tour the NICU ahead of time and meet the staff. Getting familiar with the NICU unit, staff, and new terminology is the first step to being a preemie parent.
Understand Visitation Policies
Most NICUs today welcome parents 24/7, or close to it. Doctors and nurses now recognize how essential parents are to babies’ recoveries and treatment plans. However, other restrictions may apply – like how many visitors a baby can have at one time, minimum age, vaccination status, etc. This is especially true during COVID-19, when hospital visitation polices have been known to shift frequently.
You’ll want to be with your baby as much as possible, but you need to take care of yourself, too. Depending on how your delivery went, you can expect to remain in the hospital yourself for one or several days. After you’re discharged, going home for the first time without your baby will be a deeply emotional day. Try to surround yourself with supportive people and make sure your basic needs – healthy food, hydration, sleep, hygiene – are being met.
By this time, you may have a vague estimate of how long your baby will remain in the NICU. Start to make plans for how you will commute to the hospital, as your doctor may have advised not to drive for one or more weeks. If you live closeby, this will be simpler than if you have a long commute. Some hospitals, especially those that serve as hubs for rural areas, even offer rooms for parents to stay in overnight while their baby is in the NICU. In other cases, social workers may be able to help make arrangements for temporary accommodation closer to the hospital.
Remember that as much as you may want to, you won’t be able to be by your baby’s side 24/7. Do not feel guilty over this. It’s normal and 100% okay that you have other needs, including the need to take breaks from the hospital for fresh air and a change of pace.
Participate in Rounds
NICU staff participate in rounds each day, where they visit each patient and discuss their care. Parents are highly encouraged to participate in rounds, so be sure to know what time they happen in your NICU. This is a great time to meet staff and ask questions about your baby’s progress and treatment plan.
Caring for your tiny preemie is very intimating, especially when surrounded by expert nurses. Don’t by shy! Your baby may need medical experts, but they also need their parents. Ask your baby’s nurse about kangaroo care, which has been shown to support preemie’s growth and recovery.
Watch the nurses as they care for your baby, and ask for tips on ways you can be involved, like diaper changes or feedings. If you’re planning to breastfeed, be sure to visit with a staff lactation consultant to help you make a plan and set you up with a pump, if your baby isn’t strong enough to latch just yet.
Tips for Handing NICU Stress
Having a baby in the NICU is incredibly hard on parents. At first, the journey ahead can seem very daunting and confusing. As you get to know your baby’s medical team and become familiar with NICU life, the experience can feel a bit more promising. As scary as it is to confront your child’s prematurity, understanding their medical needs and potential treatments ahead is empowering. Don’t be afraid to ask questions about your baby’s condition and options for their care.
While everyone’s focus is on getting your baby well and home, it’s important to take it one day at a time. Take care of your physical, emotional, and mental health along the way. Delegate every possible task, like house chores, cooking, pet care, and other logistics. Join a NICU parent support group and talk with others who’ve been in your situation. Ask about hospital resources to support NICU parents, like peer-to-peer mentoring. Many NICU parents agree that while they never wanted to join the NICU club, the staff and other parents they met were a true gift.
Finally, when the time comes, make a plan for your baby’s transition home. After days, weeks, or months in the NICU, taking your preemie home can feel incredibly intimidating. Professional support can help make the transition home smooth for your whole family. Family and friends may be eager to meet your little one, but limiting visits is essential at first. You’ll need time to sink into your rhythms at home and get to know your baby outside of the hospital setting.
After any NICU experience, finally taking your NICU preemie home is a gift preemie parents don’t take for granted. While you may have started your parenting journey feeling completely overwhelmed, over time you may feel ready to give back by supporting new NICU parents yourself!