While one can never be fully prepared for the unexpected, Carlye Scott, neonatal nurse practitioner at Vanderbilt and her husband, Richard (parents of Eleanor, a preemie born at 33 weeks), offer insider tips to help you as you transition to home from the NICU.
IN THE NICU
• Walk in every day, ready to learn. You will be terrified at first, but you’ll get over it as you focus on your baby.
• You will be emotionally and physically exhausted. Take it a day at a time and try to roll with things.
• Be there for as many diaper changes and feedings as you can. Do anything you’re allowed to do, as often as you can, especially in the first few days. Practice, practice, practice doing things for your baby.
• Remember that something amazing and beautiful happened when you gave birth to your child. It may be hard to celebrate in survival mode, but acknowledge the severity of the situation and know it’s OK to laugh and smile while your little one is in the NICU. Laughter helps keep you sane. •
Baby bonding may take longer than you expect. Doing things like changing your baby’s diaper and doing the feedings will help. No one can replace you as your baby’s parent. If you’re struggling to bond, voice your concern to your baby’s medical team or to your OB.
You are thrust into parenthood before you're ready ...
• Delivering a preterm baby thrusts you into parenthood before you’re mentally and physically ready. You lose predictability. You lose your old self. Give yourself some grace. It’s difficult, but you will eventually come into your own.
• If you don’t understand what’s happening in the NICU, ask. Speak up any time you’re worried.
• It’s OK to take time away from your baby to de-stress, process and take care of your life. Do what you need to do, rest, then come back healthier and stronger. Your baby needs you strong.
• You need other people, and that’s OK. You need your spouse. You need your family and friends. It’s OK to reach out and ask for help with meals or laundry. It’s equally OK to request a few days of just family time.
• Consider appointing a contact person to send out appropriate updates to family and friends whose persistent concerns can overwhelm you. You need to focus on recovering from delivery and bonding with your baby.
• Know that you’ve gained a NICU family; angels who will forever be a part of your child’s story. Your NICU family helps you survive each day of the unexpected.
• Consider the trip home as the next step down from the NICU. Your medical team has prepared you for this more than you know. While you lose your NICU “security blanket,” you know what to do, and you’ll figure out the rest. Your baby’s on a schedule — go with it, and know that your pediatrician is only a call away.
• Hyper-awareness is common in the first weeks at home. Things will settle down eventually, and you’ll be able to sleep when your baby sleeps.
• Feeding difficulties and growth may be something your little one struggles with for a while. The pediatrician will follow your baby closely.
• Don’t put pressure on yourself to jump back into life the way it was before. Life is different, and you’re adjusting. Voice your needs. Have your friends take you out for coffee. Ask for their understanding during this time.
Don't Put Pressure on Yourself to Jump Back Into Life ...
• Don’t be ashamed of being overly protective at first. People will understand. Avoid crowded places during RSV and flu season, the grocery store, the church nursery, day care, etc. This will make the first months at home feel isolating, but your little one won’t be a baby forever.
• It may seem like forever before your baby offers a purposeful smile. Keep working. Try not to compare your baby with full-term babies. Preemies have their own milestone timetable. Most will catch up to their peers by 1 - 3 years of age.
• It’s OK to grieve what you lost when you delivered your preemie. It may hit months after delivery, but take the time to process what’s happened.
• Keep communicating with your spouse. Help each other when struggling. Find ways to encourage each other and give grace.
• Celebrate the milestones. Even the smallest ones. Your little one is amazing!