Every expectant mother eagerly awaits the day when she will finally hold her baby in her arms. But for mothers of premature or very sick newborns – that moment is postponed as their baby is whisked away by a team of highly trained physicians and nurses to be cared for in the most high-tech of hospital units – the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit called the NICU (rhymes with “pick you”).
Parents of premature or sick infants must contend with many stressful elements that can accompany a stay in the NICU – first and foremost the reality that you will leave while your baby will stay behind – often for weeks or months. The sights and sounds of incubators, monitors, tubes and other medical equipment combined with teams of specialist physicians and nurses speaking a foreign, medical language as they provide complex treatment to the most tiny and fragile of patients can, understandably, be overwhelming to parents. Worry and questions about one’s baby are coupled with worry and questions about understanding the NICU itself.
In my book, The Patient’s Checklist, I offer patients and their families 10 simple and common-sensed based checklists to help navigate a hospital stay. This week I will be provide basic information, strategies and checklists tailored to help parents cope with having an infant in the NICU. Clear communication, as in all healthcare interactions, is key to partnering with your baby’s medical team. An ongoing dialogue with your baby’s physicians and nurses is the foundation to understanding and participating in your infant’s care. But where to begin? Ask as many questions as you need to so you can make informed choices about your baby’s care. Your first question may be “When can I hold my baby?” and that seems a fitting place to begin.
It can be very hard for parents to feel that they play a vital role in their preemie’s day-to-day care when that care is so technology driven. But your role is the most important of all. Your infant may now be the tiniest of patients but he or she is first and foremost your child. Even in these first days and weeks of life, you instinctively know your baby in a way that the doctors and nurses never will. You will find the best ways to bond with your baby within this complex and unfamiliar environment even if at first you cannot hold your baby. Your voice, which your infant recognizes at birth, can provide that first connection and comfort. As you gain your bearings, your insights lend a powerful perspective to your child’s care. Your infant needs you as both loving parent and engaged advocate in the NICU.
If your baby was in the NICU, what did you do the first few days to help you get adjusted?