When a baby is admitted to the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU), parents may feel overwhelmed when their lives transform from being excited to welcome their child into the world to suddenly spending their days worrying, seeing their baby go through tests and procedures, and being attached to IVs and wires.
My own daughter was born prematurely, and even as a neonatologist, nothing can truly prepare you for an unexpected NICU stay. Because we treat more than 2,500 critically-ill and premature babies at our Newborn Center each year, it’s important to create awareness about some coping tools that parents of NICU babies can use to get through it — whether their baby is there for a few weeks or a few months. Below is some of my best advice as both a doctor who cares for premature babies and as a mother of a former NICU baby:
- Don’t forget to take care of yourself. You need to be well-rested and ready to care for your baby when he or she comes home. It is normal to feel very guilty about leaving your baby in the hospital and returning home yourself, but remember that your baby is getting rest in the hospital and you need to get rest at home. Try to get a full night of sleep as many nights as you can. If you are pumping at home, remember to sleep in between pumping cycles, every 3 to 4 hours. This may mean going to bed a little earlier, or taking a morning nap before visiting your baby.
- When visiting your baby, remember to utilize our Milk Bank and other services for NICU families, including lactation consultants, support groups and FirstMemories Texas, a volunteer organization which takes photos of your baby and helps you make decorative cards to chronicle your baby’s progress. Ask your nurse or social worker how to find out more about what services are available to you.
- When your child is hospitalized in the NICU and especially if you are a first-time mother, experienced a Cesarean section, or your baby is premature, it may take some time for your milk supply to come in. Donor breast milk or specialized formulas may be used to provide proper nutrition to your baby until your milk supply increases. The use of these products is safe and helpful for your baby and doesn’t mean that you are not doing a great job as a mother.
- Most pain medications and antibiotics are safe to use while breastfeeding or pumping breast milk. It is important to take medications as prescribed by your doctor to remain healthy and comfortable while caring for your new baby.
- When your doctor says you are ready, resume light exercise at least 3 times a week because it will improve your state of mind, reduce stress and make you a better parent.
- Eat and serve your family simple, healthy meals such as cereal, soups, salads and sandwiches and don’t hesitate to accept frozen casseroles or other meals from family members and friends who would like to help.
- Remember that your baby is being cared for by experts at Texas Children’s who also want you to have good self-care and be ready for your baby to come home with you. Don’t forget about dental hygiene and drinking enough water to stay hydrated.
- Ask for and accept help from family members and friends who would like to assist with household chores, running errands or caring for pets.
- If you are planning on using childcare, begin to look at options for in-home versus out-of-home care while your child is hospitalized. This will reduce the stress of doing so when your baby comes home. Consider utilizing a night-nurse for the first few weeks when your baby comes home, or ask relatives to help out with night duty during this difficult time of transition.
- Decide on a pediatrician before your baby is discharged and meet with him or her prior to bringing your baby home.
- Make sure to keep all of your OB/GYN follow-up appointments, even though it is hard to leave your baby for them.
- Returning to work while your baby is still in the NICU may be very challenging. Remember that by working you are not only providing income for your child, but you are also modeling the importance of responsibility and contribution to society for him or her.
- Be aware that you may be more prone to post-partum depression and anxiety if your baby is in the NICU. Other psychiatric conditions may also be affected by the stress of infant hospitalization. Psychiatric and psychological services are available at The Women’s Place, a center for reproductive psychiatry at Texas Children’s Pavilion for Women. It is one of only a handful of programs in the United States dedicated to the care and treatment of women’s reproductive mental health. For parenting advice on a variety of issues, you can call our experts at the Texas Children’s Parent Advice Line at (832) 824-1777 or, for urgent needs, call the Hope Line at 1-800-PPD-MOMS (1-800-773-6667), a free, confidential resource for postpartum depression and anxiety. You can also check out Postpartum Support International (PSI) for information and help in your area.
Parents of NICU babies often describe the experience as a roller coaster ride, so I hope these tips will help parents better cope during their baby’s NICU stay.