9 Tips to Surviving the NICU

When you dream of being discharged from the hospital with a healthy, full-sized little one in your arms, it can be crushing to suddenly find yourself in the organized chaos of the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU).

Most families never plan on spending time in the NICU. The average mom is unprepared and unfamiliar with this strange world of beeping monitors, bubbling oxygen machines, and gowned hospital staff. And when you factor in a little baby that’s not doing so great, a few postpartum hormones, and a ton of stress, it’s no wonder that it can feel particularly overwhelming.

That being said, here are a few tips that this NICU mommy wishes she’d known in advance:

1. Get a proper tour. If you haven’t spent time in a NICU before (or even if you have) make sure that you get a thorough tour. You’ll feel much more comfortable once you know where everything is and what is expected of you. The policies vary with each hospital so don’t be afraid to ask lots of questions and take advantage of any perks offered (family rooms, overnight rooms, parking validation, etc.)

2. Get to know your nurses. These are the men and women who will be watching over your little one while you’re not there. Getting to know your nurses will help ease some of the stress that comes when you have to say “good-bye” to your baby at the end of each day.

3. Take advantage of some free baby advice (from professionals). As difficult as it is to have to spend time in the NICU, it’s also a good opportunity to soak up a wealth of knowledge. Your nurses are highly trained individuals with a ton of experience caring for tiny babies. Take advantage of this time to stockpile some baby care tips and advice!

4. Bond with your baby. As instinctual as it sounds, it can be very difficult to bond with a baby that you can’t pick up, hold or feed. When you leave the hospital empty handed and spend the night away from your little one, you may struggle to feel the connection that you’re looking for. Take every opportunity to bond with your baby but don’t stress if it doesn’t yet “feel like it should.”

5. Figure out this thing called “Pumping.” Many NICU babies just aren’t strong enough to be exclusively breastfed. But, that doesn’t mean that they can’t still use your milk! If you’re able to pump and store milk for your little one – go for it!

Note for the Preemie Moms: A preemie mother’s milk is different from that of a mother who gave birth at full term. Rich in proteins and fats, it’s specifically designed to help your baby through those difficult first days. If you have extra milk (particularly during those initial few weeks) be sure to store it for later or donate it to your local Milk Bank (your milk is in high demand!)

Things to ask about if you’re pumping / expressing milk:
1. Is there a mother’s room or other area to pump?
2. Can you pump by the baby’s incubator/bassinet if desired?
3. Does the hospital provide electric pumps to use? Where are they located? How do I use it?
4. Does the hospital provide pump parts? Are they one time use? Replaced daily? Used for the duration of the stay?
5. Where is expressed milk stored? Is there a fridge or freezer? Who has access to it?
6. What sort of labels should be placed on stored milk and where do I get them?

6. Visit with the Lactation Consultant. Consider this extra hospital time a blessing in disguise and take advantage of some additional breastfeeding help. If a lactation consultant isn’t on hand, check with your nurses for advice. Everyone has different advice, so keep what works for you and toss what you don’t want!

7. Take lots of pictures! This is part of your child’s story – and trust me, when you look back on these pictures, you’ll be grateful that you have them. Plus, everyone will want to see the baby but you won’t want them (or their germs) traipsing through the NICU. A picture is the next best thing!

8. Bring snacks and a water bottle. When you’re spending hours each day at your baby’s side, it’s easy to forget about yourself. Stay hydrated, rested, and keep your blood sugars up. (You may not be able to visit the baby if you get sick!) Don’t forget to pack a bag lunch with some quick and healthy snacks.

9. Take it one day at a time. There will be discouraging days. There will be days when you feel as if your baby will be stuck in that incubator until you’re grey haired and wrinkled. It’s okay to feel frustrated. Don’t be afraid to step out of the NICU for a little bit: take a walk around the hospital, get some fresh air, have a little cry, grab a coffee, and regroup. Having a NICU baby will take a toll on your emotions, so be sure that you’re taking a few moments for yourself. Celebrate each milestone, each victory, and take this one day at a time.

Any other tips from my fellow NICU families?

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