Moms know that new motherhood will be tough. They anticipate the joy of having a new baby in their life but also know the various struggles they will have to face while raising their child. But one thing they can’t anticipate is when their baby has to be taken into the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU).
Most moms end up surprised by their NICU journey, such as when the baby comes prematurely or when an unexpected complication arises. Other parents know of a possible health issue that might cause them to anticipate a stay, but even then, it’s an experience moms don’t understand until it happens to them. They might not get to hold their own baby until days after the birth, and they can’t do all the things that they expect to do as a new mom such as to give bottles or baths. That can be off-putting.
This guide might shed some light on the experience for moms who have to face days, weeks, or even months in the hospital. While the truth is that the NICU can be a very precarious place, and while there are a lot of things that parents can’t do, it gives the baby the best chance of being able to do a lot more in the future. Here are 20 things parents can’t do when their baby is in the NICU.
20. NICU MOMS CAN’T CUDDLE THEIR BABIES AS OFTEN AS THEY’D LIKE
Most moms can’t wait to snuggle their little one to their chest immediately after they are born, and they dream about holding and rocking the baby day and night. But that’s not an option for NICU moms. Some get the chance to hold the baby briefly after the birth, depending on the baby’s health, but once they are in the NICU, they will have to watch from afar.
The good news is that most moms get a chance to hold their baby in the NICU, but they have to wait until the baby is stable. In fact, many hospitals encourage skin-to-skin contact as frequently as health will allow to help the baby regulate his heartbeat and warmth.
19. BETTER NOT FORGET HAND WASHING!
All newborns are vulnerable to getting sick, but that is even more true of babies in the NICU. Moms need to be extra careful whenever they visit to wash their hands, especially since hospitals can be a pretty germy environment.
While NICU babies are battling to grow and contending with other complications, the last thing that they need is to get sick. Parents often have to go to and from the hospital and some go to work and do other errands, especially during a long NICU stay. They need to be cautious that they don’t encounter germs outside of the ward and bring them into the baby.
18. FEW ARE VISITORS ALLOWED IN THE NICU
Moms and dads need to keep in mind that the NICU is an intensive care unit. That means that there are restrictions for visitors, no matter how much they want to introduce the baby to family and friends. But it doesn’t mean that no one can come by.
The restrictions depend on the health of the baby, although most of the time the parents are allowed to be with the baby. Usually, they can bring one or two other people at a time in for a short visit, but they should check with the doctor or nurse first. And any visitors should be healthy so they don’t bring any illness into the unit.
17. MOM WON’T BE ABLE TO TAKE ADVANTAGE OF GOLDEN HOUR
When moms are pregnant, they hear a lot about the importance of the golden hour. That is the first hour after birth when the baby is alert and has a natural instinct to latch and breastfeed. Many moms who want to breastfeed look forward to the golden hour, but if the baby has a low APGAR score at birth, he’s likely going to be in the NICU during that hour.
It might be disappointing to miss the golden hour, but that doesn’t mean that a mom can’t eventually find success in breastfeeding. We’ll get into that more later, but for now, moms might miss that golden opportunity.
16. BONDING MAY HAVE TO WAIT
A lot of things are tough about being a NICU mom, but probably the hardest is the barrier that the experience can be in allowing a mom to bond with her newborn. The bond doesn’t always forge naturally, but for moms who have their babies at home, there are a lot more opportunities to try.
In the NICU, there is a physical barrier between the mom and her baby while she is in the isolette. On top of that, nurses are more likely to give the care that moms usually give in terms of diaper changes and baths. And it can take a while until the mom can even give a bottle. That can be heartbreaking, but moms should hang in there because the bond will come in time.
15. MOMS NEED A BREAK — SHE CAN’T SPEND 24/7 WITH BABY
After growing a baby in her womb for months—maybe as few as five months in the case of micro preemies or up to nine months for others—it can be strange for a mom to have to leave her baby for even a moment after the birth. But that is the unfortunate life of a NICU mom.
Many hospitals have family-friendly NICU rooms that allow the moms to spend a lot more time with their little one than they did in the past. But moms still have to go home to shower and take a break every day. That can seem like leaving a piece of their heart, but they can’t spend 24/7 with their newborn.
14. SOMETIMES MOMS WON’T BE ABLE TO NURSE (AT FIRST)
In recent years, doctors have stressed the importance of breastfeeding to provide health benefits to the baby and to the mom. The statistics show that a majority of moms want to nurse their babies for the first year of life, as doctors recommend, but NICU moms have a disadvantage in that it might not be possible to get a good start.
There are many reasons why the baby might not be able to nurse, including issues like a cleft palate, a heart problem, a swallow issue or just not being strong enough. That can be upsetting for women. But it’s still a good idea to try to pump milk—using a hospital grade pump—to provide the nutrients to the baby as best a mom can.
13. CAN’T ANTICIPATE THE DISCHARGE DATE
All moms dream about the day that they get to bring their baby home from the hospital. But when the baby is in the NICU, doctors and nurses discourage moms from anticipating that day. Many times they won’t give any indication of when it could come other than to say that the baby might be in the hospital until the due date for a preemie.
Instead, many times they will talk about milestones the baby needs to reach such as being able to breathe on his own, gain some pounds and be able to take a bottle. Some little ones take longer than others to reach those goals. So moms can keep dreaming, but they can’t mark their calendar.
12. PARENTS CAN’T HELP BUT HAVE NIGHTMARES OVER THE BILL
Any time any person goes to the hospital, one nagging concern in the back of their mind is always the bill. It’s just a reality that happens in every unit in the hospital. As much as a mom and dad keep the health of the baby at the forefront, it’s okay to admit that they can’t help but worry about the expense of a NICU stay.
The answer always depends on a person’s insurance coverage and the extent of the medical issues. In general, the baby doesn’t have to meet a deductible for care in the first week or so of life, but most insurances will require that if the stay is long. But most hospitals work with new parents to allow them to make payments, so they can focus on the baby’s health.
11. THOSE NICU MACHINES WILL COME TO ANNOY YOU
Noise can be an issue for any new parent — but it’s very different for a NICU mom who would give anything to hear the baby cry. Of course, there are some cries, depending on the baby’s health. But mostly, there are beeps, lots and lots of beeps.
The sound of the various machines and apparatus in the NICU can be frustrating, but they can also be triggering. A parent quickly learns what noises are signs that things are not good, and they will always keep their ears out for those sounds. It can be alarming, literally, and soon moms won’t be able to stand the sounds.
10. NEWBORNS CAN’T ALWAYS BE WITH OLDER SIBLINGS
NICU life can be difficult for the entire family, and that includes older siblings. While moms might be able to bring in the big brother or sister to meet her sibling in the NICU, the visit usually has to be brief, and it can be hard to explain the medical situation. With the wires and monitors, it might be frightening for them too.
The biggest concern for many moms is trying to balance time with the baby and their other kids. That can be a tricky situation, and the mom will likely feel guilty any time she is away from either child, especially if it’s over a long period of time.
9. IT’S WISE NOT TO MISS A SUPPORT GROUP
This item might not apply for parents of little ones who have a short stay in the NICU, but moms of preemies and other seriously ill newborns should seriously consider joining a support group or talking to other NICU parents.
Babies won’t remember their time in the NICU, but parents definitely do. They need support during the emotional and stressful journey, and they might even benefit from seeing a professional to talk with. NICU parents can become family — they know what the mom and dad are going through and are happy to be there to help. Their kids might even become friends later on.
8. CAN’T DEVIATE FROM THE SCHEDULE
Moms of newborns learn early that the baby’s feedings and such need to be on a schedule. But that is even truer when the little one is in the NICU — and the nurses will be certain to establish a rigid schedule right away.
This is really critical when it comes to meds, but for newborns, making sure that the baby is fed often is important for making sure that they are growing and thriving. Moms might feel a little hampered by the baby’s schedule, but once they go home, they will be grateful that the nurses have established a routine that can make life with a newborn easier.
7. BRING ON THE DECORATIONS
Many moms-to-be spend months planning and decorating the baby’s nursery. Yet, if the baby is in the NICU, it can seem sterile and unwelcoming. That’s why nurses urge parents to decorate a little to make the area feel more like home.
Of course, it’s hard to see past the machines and such, but many nurses try to have something special with the baby’s name, and they might take footprints that the parents can frame and hang nearby. It might not seem like a lot, but it can make a big difference in making the parents more comfortable about the NICU stay.
6. CAN’T PREDICT THE FUTURE
The NICU can be a roller coaster for new moms and dads. While there are some cases that are easier than others, a NICU baby is often very fragile, which means that he could go through a lot of health ups and downs.
Preemies, especially micro preemies, can develop issues with breathing and eating, even as they grow and get bigger. Newborns with birth defects might also seem to get better before taking a turn. It can be a long journey, and doctors try to warn parents not to predict the outcome — just love on the baby that day.
5. CAN’T HESITATE TO ASK THE DOCTOR QUESTIONS
One of the most alarming parts about being a NICU parent is that it can be hard to understand what is going on with the baby. In the beginning, there may be more questions than answers, but moms and dads shouldn’t hesitate to talk to the doctor and get as much information as they can.
Moms are their baby’s first and best advocate. They might be intimidated by the medical terms and apparatus, but they need to step up and get as many answers as they can so that they can make the best decisions for their little one in his time of need.
4. IT’S NORMAL TO FEEL ANGRY
We’ve mentioned the emotional ups and downs that can happen in the NICU, but it’s not just about sadness. Most women can’t help but feel angry at some point, even if they acknowledge that there isn’t anyone to be angry with. It’s not always rational, but moms can feel duped out of the delivery they desired or even the last trimester of pregnancy in the case of preemies.
Some moms get mad at the doctors, even though they know it’s not the doctor’s fault. And they can get mad at themselves and feel guilty about what happened. It’s normal to feel anger, especially since postpartum hormones can heighten emotions. But NICU moms need to know that it’s not their fault.
3. DON’T HOLD BACK TEARS
The NICU is a hard reality for moms and dads. Whether they anticipated a stay while they were expecting the baby or the experience was a surprise, it can be very difficult for a parent to see their tiny baby going through a medical crisis. The nurses understand, and they encourage moms and dads to feel free to let out their emotions and cry.
Sometimes a parent needs to be strong, and new moms and dads summon that capacity really early on. But it’s okay to feel sadness and other emotions, and they shouldn’t feel like they need to hold back their tears.
2. DON’T TAKE THE NURSES FOR GRANTED
A neonatal nurse must have a special calling. It’s hard to imagine a job dealing with frail and tiny newborns when you know that not all of the cases have happy endings. Yet hospitals are filled with these amazing caring creatures who are firm enough to get the job done and gentle enough to reassure a baby.
Nurses work tirelessly to take care of the health of the baby, feed, clothe and diaper him when his mom can’t, and do what they can to help mom and dad, too. Many times they are the brightest part of an otherwise sad situation, and parents shouldn’t take them for granted.
1. TAKE NICU LIFE DAY BY DAY
The days, weeks and months in the NICU can be very harrowing. There are some sweet memories, but they don’t make up for the stress and worry over the baby’s health ups and downs. In the end, though, one thing is certain — it teaches moms that they can’t take life for granted.
Having a baby is a miracle no matter how it happens. Some babies need extra support and help in the beginning, but thankfully doctors and nurses have more tools to allow newborns to get the help that they need. The NICU life can stay with a parent long after the baby has gone home, but it just reminds us to be grateful that our little ones made it.