The first few days of being in a Neo-natal Intensive Care Unit (NICU) feel like nothing but a whirlwind of new sounds, new voices, and new language all around you. For many, the first days are a blur, and the only thing you know is that you are not at home with your babies. You may feel numb and experience a type of tunnel vision, where the only thing you can take in is the sight of your babies in incubators. Nothing else happening around you seems to matter at that moment in time.
Eventually you will begin to relax, trust in those around you and focus on getting your babies healthy and able to go home. The experiences you have in a NICU setting will stay with you for a lifetime. The experiences will influence how you will parent your babies in the future.
As a mother of three pre-term babies (aka "preemies"), including a singleton and twins, I often reflect on those first few days of uncertainty and think about how I got through all those days in the hospital. I had good days and I had bad days, just like other mothers and fathers do when placed in a stressful and scary situation. I realize I had my own coping mechanisms to get through those days. Here are my tips on how to cope and look after yourself when your babies are in the NICU.
1. Take time for yourself – Find a quiet nook or a park bench on the hospital grounds to take time away from the NICU to breathe, re-group, and refresh. You can take your iPod, a book, or a magazine to get your mind off NICU chatter and sounds. You might be surprised how many hospitals have serene settings in which to hide away for a bit of time each week.
2. Call a friend – Friends want to help parents who are in a NICU, but they don’t always know the right time to call or exactly what to say. If you take some time away from the hospital unit, why not call your friend to chat? The choice is yours whether you call to vent, cry, or just catch up and talk about life outside the NICU. By doing this, you’ll keep some normalcy in your life. Your friend will be very happy you called.
3. Have a nap – When your babies are in the hospital, you will most likely lose a lot of sleep because you want to be with them as much as possible. You may also have older children at home you have to tend to. Try to take a nap whenever possible. If you are at the hospital, take a nap in the reclining chairs by your babies’ beds or get some shut eye in the family room on a couch. Most NICUs offer parents a locker for some belongings where you can consider keeping a small pillow and blanket for comfort. A well-rested parent can focus on the demands of pre-term babies better than an exhausted one. You will also be able to more effectively communicate your needs to staff when your opinions or thoughts are needed regarding the care of your children.
4. Pack a snack – At the beginning of each week, pack a small freezer bag with snacks like granola bars, fruit bars, fruit, crackers, and snacks of your liking, as well as some bottles of water, juice, or packets of hot chocolate to keep you energized. Packing a variety of items will help you avoid going to the cafeteria and spending money on items that are not always the healthiest option. Store your snack bag in your locker and your drinks in a labeled bag in the fridge. And pack some chocolate, because sometimes you just need chocolate!
5. Take a trip – Ask the nursing staff what is interesting nearby and take a quick trip somewhere close by, whether it’s a mall, a park or a coffee shop. Excuse yourself from the NICU and get away from the hospital itself for a few hours. You're often in an entirely different community when your babies are in a NICU, so why not take some time to get to know a city you may not have been to? You are guaranteed to return to the NICU feeling refreshed and ready to focus on your babies again.
These are a few of the ways I made it through three-and-a-half months of living in a city other than my own. I did my best to make that city feel like “home” in order to feel happy and confident during our time there. Now, I not only have memories of the NICU, but also of the time I found an awesome park to which I still take my kids every spring and summer or the really great shoe store I came across. It might sound funny, but these little normal daily activities kept me positive and happy during a stressful time. It also gave me something to focus on and talk about other than NICU life. So I hope you will find these tips useful for your own NICU experience if you are going through it right now. If you are not, I hope you will share these ideas with other pre-term parents or parents of term babies in the NICU, that you might meet along the way.