Your pregnancy is ticking along, but all of a sudden you find yourself delivering your baby (or babies) early. Having a premature or sick baby in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit, or NICU, makes for an uncertain time as you and your family face a range of emotions.
As an NICU nurse, my role is both holistic and family-centred, ensuring best outcomes for your baby while establishing a trusting partnership with parents and families.
Here are a few tips for families with an infant in the NICU:
Learn who’s who
You’ll meet many different health care staff during your baby’s stay in the NICU. Our team are specially trained in the area of neonatology (care of the critically-ill baby) and will care for your baby for their entire stay. The NICU health team consists of neonatologists (doctors), nurse practitioners, registered respiratory therapists, pharmacists, registered nurses, registered dietitians, occupational therapists, social workers and, of course, you the parent. I usually care for between one and three babies. Depending on how long your baby is here, I may be the primary nurse for your baby to provide continuity of care. It takes a village to care for your baby and each member of the team brings a special area of expertise.
Ask questions — lots of questions
Your stay in the NICU will be scary and intimidating at first. One of our goals during this time is to ensure that you are kept up-to-date with your baby’s progress and plan of care. We encourage you to be present for our daily morning updates on your baby (known as rounds), and to ask questions and clarify our roles if you are not sure. As an NICU parent or family member, you are considered part of the team.
Get creative with bonding
Your premature baby will be placed in an incubator or isolette; which is very different from what you had imagined. It is meant to mimic the environment of the womb, but while your baby continues to grow and develop in there, you can bond with your baby by doing things such as hand hugging, a modified cuddle and finally Kangaroo Care. We want you to do Kangaroo Care. If we don’t offer, please ask. It has great benefits to the baby and almost anyone in the family can do it. And please remember to take photos, read your baby stories, and celebrate milestones like their first feed and weight gain.
Look after yourself
This may seem impossible to do, between spending long hours in the NICU and caring for other siblings and family members, but it is important to look after yourself. Sleep whenever possible, exercise to help manage stress, pack healthy meals and snacks, and drink lots of water. Don’t be afraid to ask for help from family and friends. If someone’s dropping off a few meals, offering to walk the dog or lend a hand caring for your other kids – say yes! You will have a wide range of emotions from sadness to grief to anger and even depression. We want to support you through this, so consider speaking with your nurse or social worker.
Seek out other families in the same situation
Talk to other NICU parents in the hallways, family lounge or online. Having support from peers who understand what you’re going through is incredibly helpful. Speak to the parent coordinator about available parent support groups.
Prepare to meet your pump
Breast milk is liquid gold for babies in the NICU. Because your baby is premature, he or she may not start breastfeeding but will rather get their nutrients through an IV or feeding tube. You are encouraged to pump your milk every two to three hours so we can give it to your baby. When you’re at the hospital, try to pump close to your baby’s bedside (it really helps with milk letdown). To encourage milk letdown at home, consider smelling his or her blankie, an item of clothing, or looking at a photo. If you are having problems with milk production, ask to speak to one of our lactation consultants who will work with you.
Remember: you are not alone
There are times when this experience in the NICU feels like it is bigger than you, that you are alone and it will never end. It is in those times that you look to the supports around you because you are not alone and together we can make this the most loving, healing experience possible.