How to Be a NICU Mom

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Dear Experts,
I need help with how to be a NICU mom. My baby was born at term, but was transferred to another hospital because of trouble breathing. Now he is being slowly weaned off the oxygen to room air, and once he can breathe well on his own he has to prove to them he can eat. I am hoping all this will happen in the next few days and then he can finally be home!

In the meantime, there is a 45 minute drive each way and everyone is watching me like a hawk, so I don't drive (because of bleeding problems with the birth), my husband is getting frustrated with the visits and my three-year-old can't seem to handle more than a few minutes there. Any advice on some tips to get through this NICU period would be great.


Having a newborn in the NICU can be incredibly stressful. Even if your baby is only admitted for observation, or able to go home after a few days, the separation from your little one can feel so wrong and unnatural. You may grieve for the lost experiences of snuggling, breastfeeding, showing off your newborn, and basking in the glow of simply becoming a parent to this baby. If your pregnancy was cut short, or your delivery was difficult, these are losses too. And then there's the fear of not knowing what's wrong, and when it will (or if it will) get better.

Also, it is normal to feel overwhelmed by the NICU, intimidated by the medical professionals, helpless to ease your baby's suffering, and incompetent around your little one. All that you thought you knew about parenting goes out the window as you adjust to parenting in the NICU. And even after your baby is home and thriving, like most NICU parents, you may experience an emotional fallout, as if being home and having your baby in your arms affords you the time and energy to review and work through your emotions. Having a baby in the NICU is an unexpected and emotional journey, for sure.

However, you can adjust and become adept at parenting in the NICU. Within hours and days, you will become familiar with the technology and your baby's medical conditions and treatments. You will get to know your baby's nurses and doctors as your teammates, gentle professionals who can help you learn how to give your baby the special care and handling he needs. And you will get to know your baby -- how he wants to be touched and held, what soothes and comforts him, and his cute little quirks. With the support of your baby's nurses and doctors, you can also provide breastmilk, try nursing, and hold your baby so he can benefit from your nurturing.

In fact, being involved and having close contact is good for both you and your baby. For you, it promotes bonding, parental identity, involvement, confidence, competence, and emotional coping. Kangaroo care (laying your diapered baby on your bare chest) and breast-feeding let you feel how intimately necessary you are to your baby's recovery. For your baby, your touch and soothing presence can promote weight gain, temperature maintenance, and oxygen saturation levels, and your involvement can reduce the length of hospitalization. In intensive care, babies need to be cuddled by loving arms, even when they also need technology.

Indeed, precious little should come between you and your baby. Close contact is so beneficial that the more critical a baby's condition, the more critical it can be for the baby to be touched or held by the parents. If your baby's health care providers are resisting your involvement, talk to your favorite nurse and affirm that you want to be involved in your baby's care and comfort. Explain that you believe it is in your baby's best interests to be nurtured by you instead of blocked from you, and to eventually go home with parents who feel confident and competent with taking care of him, instead of parents who feel distant, fearful, or overwhelmed.

You do have other barriers to overcome -- you cannot drive, so is it possible for a friend to drive you when your husband cannot join you? Is it possible to find care for your preschooler, so that you and your husband can have uninterrupted time with your newborn? If or when you must take your older son, can you and your husband switch off, such that after big brother has had enough visiting, you can each take a turn with him, going to a children's area or other place where he can play, explore, and eat? That way, both you and your husband can get quality one-on-one time with each of your sons.

Most of all, you may benefit from talking about what you're going through and how you're feeling about it all. Ask if the hospital has a support group for NICU parents, or provides parent-to-parent support. Talk to close friends or family. You and your husband may be on different pages, but you can still offer comfort in the form of a listening ear and accepting attitude. Our book, Parenting Your Premature Baby and Child also has supportive chapters that apply to any family's situation, preemie or not, in the NICU-chapters and sections on acclimating to the NICU; working with your baby's health care providers; parenting and bonding in the NICU; breastfeeding the NICU baby; dealing with your partner and older children; grief, adjustment, coping, and finding support. Also, check out our website for written materials that you can print and share with your baby's doctors and nurses, particularly if they block your efforts to be close to your baby.

Congratulations on the birth of your baby boy, and we are so sorry about his hospitalization and all the challenges you are enduring. We wish you the best as you find your way through to the other side. May your baby thrive under your loving care and come home soon.
-- Debbie and Mara
The Crisis Pregnancy Expert Team