What You Need to Know About the NICU

Like most moms, I was nervous, but excited about the delivery of my firstborn son. However, I never expected his arrival to be the whirlwind that it was. Not only was he a week late, but I was also in labor for 72 hours. Though I was induced, he still didn’t want to come. I guess he was quite comfortable where he was.

Finally, after an emergency C-section, my little guy made his arrival, and the joy I felt when I was able to hold him for the first time was beyond words. I thought that everything was perfect, and we were going to go home in a few days, as a family of three, but to my extreme dismay, my newborn son had to go to the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU.) I spiked a 103° fever, as a result of being in labor for so long and having a C-section.

The doctors were afraid that because of my fever, there was an infection, and that my son was at risk, so they scooped him out of my arms, placed him in an isolette (an incubator,) and wheeled him off to the NICU. I was devastated, to say the least.

Most people think that the NICU is for premature babies, and while, yes, preemies are cared for in the NICU, full-term babies are, too. Though moms-to-be may expect to experience some bumps in the road during their pregnancies, few moms envision their babies going to the NICU. When a newborn goes to the NICU it can be a difficult time for the parents. You may feel anxious, scared, and unsure, but knowing what to expect can help to put you at ease.

10 It’s Crowded

You may be surprised to see that there are a lot of people in the NICU. I was very taken aback by how many people where there the first time I went to visit my son. There were dozens of neonatologists (pediatricians who specialize in caring for premature or sick babies), nurses, support staff, residency doctors, obstetricians, and of course, other babies and parents.

9 There a Lot of Tubes and Machines

Expect to see your baby hooked up to a lot of tubes and machines. Every baby is in an isolette, which not only keeps them warm, but protects them from being exposed to germs. There are IV machines, ventilators, cardiopulmonary monitors, pulse oximeters, and a rash of other machines.

Seeing your baby connected to these pipes and machines is certainly overwhelming, but rest assured that they are there to help your baby.

8 Visiting is Not Flexible

In the NICU, the medical needs of the babies come first, which means that visiting is very strict. In order to ensure little ones receive proper care, there are set guidelines that must be adhered to. Parents are usually the only ones who are allowed to visit whenever they want, but don’t be surprised if you're told you have to wait to enter if shifts are changing. Grandparents, siblings, aunts, and uncles may be allowed to enter, but only with one of the baby’s parents, and only one at a time.

7 Germ-Free is the Way to Be

While you want to keep the exposure to germs with all babies to a minimum, for NICU babies, this is crucial. Even a minor cold can be extremely dangerous for their sensitive immune systems. If you have a cold, or any other infection, keep out of the NICU, even if it pains you to do so. When you do enter the NICU, you’re going to have to thoroughly wash and sanitize your hands before doing so.

6 Expect Lots of Tests

Lots of tests will be conducted to check on your baby’s development, and ensure that your baby's health is going in the right direction. Blood test, X-rays, CT scans, and other tests may be frequently conducted. Try not to be alarmed, remember these tests let your doctors know how your baby is doing.

5 There will be Feeding Schedules

Feeding your baby is a wonderful bonding experience. Just because your little one is in the NICU, that doesn’t mean that you can’t feed him. Nurses will call you when it is time for your baby to be fed, and you will be able feed him. You may be able to breastfeed, but do be aware that your little one may not be strong enough to nurse, just yet. If that is the case, you can pump and feed your baby your breast milk through a bottle, or you can formula feed.

Whatever your baby is eating, I highly recommend following the feeding schedule, it’s a wonderful time to bond with your little one. However, don’t beat yourself up if you can’t make every feeding. I tried my very best to feed my son every chance I could, but I was also recovering from a C-section (and another emergency surgery, which is a whole different story,) so I had to rest and recover, and couldn’t always get there.

I felt horrible and cried, at first, but then I realized that if I didn’t take care of me, I wouldn’t be able to take care of him. My husband would bottle feed him, or the nurses in the NICU, and that was okay, We still developed a strong bond.

4 Your Baby may be Transported

I was lucky enough to have delivered my son in a hospital with a NICU, but not all hospitals have NICUs, so if your baby has to go to the NICU, she will have to be transported to the nearest hospital with a NICU. The same is true if your baby is born at home, or a birthing center.

The idea of having your baby leave you may be terrifying, but rest assured that it's for their best interest, and that you will have every opportunity to visit.

3 Take All the Help You Can Get

While I get that you want to do everything yourself, it really is okay to have some help. I wanted to be a rock star mom and do it all on my own, although I quickly realized that I wasn’t going to be able to do it all. I definitely needed help, and I took advantage of it.

My husband was incredible, and so were my parents, and my sister. If you need to rest, let someone else visit the NICU. Remember, you can’t care for your little one, if you don’t care for yourself.

2 Take Time for You

I know that it may seem selfish, but you really do need to take some time for yourself. Having a baby in the NICU can be very stressful, and sometimes, you need to take a moment to cope with that stress. It’s okay if you don’t make it to every feeding, and if you aren’t there for every visit. Take advantage of the help that people offer, and don’t be afraid to ask for help, either. You defintely need to take care of yourself, too.

1 This Too, Shall Pass

While it may seem like time is standing still while your baby is in the NICU, take comfort in knowing that it will all be over soon. Before you know it, your baby will be strong and healthy, and will be able to go home. And when that day comes, you will be so very thankful for the time that he spent in the NICU.

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