Surviving the NICU

You’ve imagined this moment time and time again. The moment you finally get to meet the tiny human that’s taken up residence in your ever expanding belly. Or perhaps you are like me, and couldn’t fathom what that moment would be like, but the thought sent electric butterflies pulsing through you from head to toe.

Either way, what you never dreamed of was seeing your beautiful little bean helplessly swimming in wires and tubes, and hooked up to monitor after monitor.

Welcome to the #NICUlife.

Nothing can possibly prepare you for the reality that is the NICU. It is the exclusive club that you never wanted to join.

But believe it or not new mama . . . You will make it through.

This too shall pass.

Yes, this seems too simple of a statement. Too cliche of a phrase. Not enough.

And the truth is that it is not enough. No motivational quote will ever be enough.

But, as with all challenging seasons of life, you simply have to put one foot in front of the other and carry on.

How?

Though I am no medical expert, I am the proud mama of a NICU graduate. I stood right where you stand. And it’s scary as heck. But you, like I, will get through this.

Though it really doesn’t feel like much to impart on a fellow NICU mom (or dad), here are the things that got me through our NICU stay.

Take one day at a time. 
I had as uncomplicated of a pregnancy as you can have. Every prenatal check-up was met with an A+ report card, a pat on the back, and a witty joke about how good I was at being pregnant. There wasn’t a single red flag, so the thought that our mini dude would make his debut six weeks early had never once crossed our minds.

I still remember that feeling of utter helplessness when my husband and I talked with our son’s NICU doctor for the first time. We hadn’t prepared for the possibility that we wouldn’t be bringing our peanut home within a day or two.

Three to six weeks.

The exact timeframe was entirely dependent upon his progress.

He would call the NICU home until he was healthy enough to leave it and his entourage of doctors, nurses, and occupational therapists behind.

It sounded like a prison sentence.

My heart couldn’t comprehend how to function without him. So . . . I cried. I cried an awful lot. And often. And even when the tears began to slow,  there was always another waterfall of tears just waiting to burst free. Remember that scene in Disney’s Alice in Wonderland, where Alice cries a literal pool of tears that sweeps her up like a flash flood? It felt something like that.

But, even through the mess and blur of tears, I resolved to get up, get dressed, and greet each new sunrise as a welcomed blessing. One more tally mark that ticked closer to the day, even though his doctors couldn’t give us an exact discharge date.

Approaching each day separately helped keep me grounded and in the moment, instead of living in the anxiety of what tomorrow might bring.

Ask questions.
In fact, ask all the questions. As many as you need to understand. As many as it takes to wrap your mind around your baby’s condition. You simply can’t ask too many.

For me, each opportunity to get an update from my little guy’s doctor was an opportunity to take notes. Weight. Height. Feedings. How much he was able to drink from the bottle versus how much had to be gavaged. The number of IVs he was on, and what each was for. Apnea. Bradycardia. O2 saturation levels. CPAP. PDA . . . The NICU had its own language, and I hungered to learn it inside and out.

I kept detailed notes of everything on my phone. Then, when I wasn’t completely consumed by simply staring at him, I’d spend hours reading through online medical journals and reputable medical resources. The more I learned, the more at ease I felt. Even though everything was entirely out of my control, knowing brought a shred of peace to my mind.

Now, I am not saying you need to be as meticulous of a note taker as I was. In fact, the medical jargon can easily become overwhelming. A simple daily update may be more than enough for you, and that is okay too.

Your level of inquisitiveness is just enough.

Have a safety net. And use it! 
Big or small. One person. Or many. You. Need. Support.

You do not have to go through this alone. Better put: You should not face this alone.

Don’t worry, you won’t burden anyone by reaching out for help. And no, asking for help is not a sign of weakness. Humans were not made to go through life alone.

So reach out. No favor is too big or too small.

Can’t face the NICU wing alone? Need someone to: walk the dog, load the dishwasher, make dinner, bring you lunch, thrown in a load of laundry . . . or help with one of the many other mundane tasks that now seems too daunting to stay on top of?

Just ask.

Maybe your mini human arrived before you were able to finish his or her nursery. Or perhaps you have other small humans to care for, and are now quickly descending into madness wondering how to divide your time between home and hospital.

Make a call. Send a text.

It’s possible that doing chores is exactly what keeps you grounded, and what you really need is a friendly face to chat with.

Grab a cup of coffee and set up a virtual video date with a friend or relative.

And be vocal.

If you are anything like me, you might feel too consumed by it all to reach out. Between sleep deprivation and stress, you may not even remember you have the option to make a call or send a text. That’s okay too. Just make sure that your family and friends knows this about you. Designate someone close to check up on you ever few days.

And with all this said, there will be times that you want to be left alone, and that is okay too.

Have respect.
For the NICU doctors and nurses, the occupational therapists and lactation consultants, and the baby cuddlers. Side note: Which is seriously the sweetest volunteer opportunity ever! The hospital staff are all there because they genuinely care for the health and wellbeing of all their squishy, miniature tenants.

Have respect for the other NICU parents. Your baby’s stay may be longer or shorter than that of his neighbor. His health better or worse.

Offer grace to the family crying or talking loudly in the next bay. Every infant’s condition is unique, and every person copes with stress in different ways.

Try not to judge the mother that visits for an hour compared to your all-day visits. Her child’s stay may be longer than her maternity leave or allowed time off. She also might have other children or family members to take care of.

Each petite bundle has a different story, and so does each family.

Have respect.

Foster seeds of lasting love.
I remember how foreign the word mom felt after my little dude was born.

My body had spent 34 weeks growing and nurturing this teeny tiny being . . . Yet there he was, a mess of wires, tubes, monitors, and out of cuddling reach, encased in an isolette.

During his first week, he had to undergo phototherapy for jaundice, and could only be taken out and held for 30 minutes at a time, every three hours. Even after graduating from the isolette, holding him came with a bundle of wires, and an anxiety-inducing array of beeps and alarms . . . And at the end of each day, I had to leave him and go home. More than anything, I felt like a visitor. Not a mom.

Still, none of this stopped me from bonding with him in every way I could.

From diaper changes and taking his temperature, to cuddling and just staring at him, training my eyes to memorize every itty bitty feature of his. I lived and breathed baby every single second I was able to.

Don’t be afraid to love on your tiny human. Hold his itty bitty hand. Snuggle, snuggle, and then snuggle some more! With the doctor’s okay, of course.

And don’t underestimate the power of smell. One simple, but surprisingly great way to bond is through the use of a lovie. You can buy one or make your own. Simply take two small swatches of super soft fabric. A 2”x2” flannel square (or other shape) works perfectly. Place one under baby’s head, and wear the other next to skin (I wore mine inside my nursing bra). Trade the swatches each day. It gives your babe the chance to become familiar with your personal scent, and you get to enjoy the intoxicating smell of your little one.

I received a pair of lovies inside my NICU care package, provided by the March of Dimes. To be honest, I wouldn’t have known what to do with them had it not been for my hospital’s lactation consultant.

Leaving the hospital each day caused me a near physical pain. Every cell in my body ached. Laying that small cloth on my pillow each night and breathing in his beautiful baby smell helped ease it just a bit. Admittedly, it always brought on fresh tears . . . But it also made me feel more connected to him. I imagined him sleeping soundly, breathing in my scent. Slowly becoming familiar with his momma. Me.

Capture those precious moments.
Along with cozying up to my baby-scented lovie each night, I loved scrolling through pictures and videos of my mini peanut that I’d taken throughout the day.

My heart melted over his teensy fingers and toes. I’d study his itty bitty features and stare in awe at how my picture collection documented a gradual progression of milestones. Graduating from the CPAP ventilator. The sudden absence of one IV and then the other . . . Over the days and weeks, while he was still so, so small, he’d made leaps and bounds of progress.

Looking through his photos brought tears to my eyes and an ache to my heart, but it also made me feel closer to him.

At the time, he wasn’t strong enough to breastfeed, so I was exclusively pumping. I truly believe that feeling connected to him helped preserve (and even boosted) my milk supply.

Now that he is a chunky-thighed, healthy little seven-month-old squirt, I still love looking back and seeing just how far he’s come.

Take time for you.
Go outside.
Get sunlight.
Read a book.
Read 10 books.
Play a game on your phone.
Eat! Breastfeeding or not, you need your strength.
Call someone.
Call several somebodies.
Pray.
Go to church.
Meditate.
Whatever you need to do to feel a bit more human. Do it.

Cry when you need to cry.
Postpartum hormones are no joke! Add a NICU stay to already fragile emotions, and it’s easy to feel like you could spend days upon days bawling.

And the reality is that you might do just that.

And that is perfectly okay.

There is nothing wrong with needing to cry it out. Not a shred of weakness in it.

Cry when you need to cry. As often as you need to, and for as long as you need to.

***

Nothing written or spoken will ever be enough. There is no magic mantra. No enlightened phrase that will make this season of life easier.

But you will get through this.

Hang in there mama.

Peace,

Y

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