Bringing a child into the world is nothing short of a miracle. It’s not comforting to think about, but even if you do everything “right,” there can always be circumstances beyond your control. Whether you have been told to plan for a stay in the NICU or it’s unexpected, here are survival tips from nurses for orienting yourself to the NICU.
1. Try to see your baby as soon as possible. It may mean getting there in a wheelchair or going there in a post-anesthesia fog, but the sooner you see the new life you have brought into this world, the better off you will both be.
2. Before you go, ask the nurses or doctors what you can expect to see. The equipment and tubing that will help your baby get well are second nature and invisible to the staff that works with them every day, but it is best to be prepared to the extent possible. It may be hard to hear about what to expect or it may be hard to grasp what they are saying, but it will help you get oriented to the new environment. And don’t be afraid to ask questions!
3. Plan to practice great infection prevention starting with hand hygiene
Newborns, especially those who get a rough start to life, are susceptible to infection. Depending on the type of NICU and the babies they have, don’t be surprised if you are asked to cover your clothes with a hospital type gown. Always sanitize your hands before entering the NICU and make sure others do the same. Good, thorough handwashing is better than Purell type liquids. Keep anyone sick (or who has been exposed to illness) far away from yourselves and the baby.
4. Try to connect to your baby as much as possible. If circumstances allow, try to touch your baby skin to skin as much as possible. Studies suggest that this is very important for the infant and for you. Speak to the baby or sing to them, to the extent that it doesn’t disrupt other families. The baby has been hearing your voice for months, and continuing to hear your voice is important for their development.
Also, if at all possible, breastfeed, even if that means pumping your milk and having the nurses give it to the baby. As far as science has come, they haven’t been able to replicate the nutrients and antibodies in mother’s milk. It’s something that you and only you can do for your newborn.
5. Get familiar with the monitoring machines, but block out the noise. The beeps and bleeps of the NICU are part of the rhythm. You will make it harder on yourself if you try to follow every signal, but it is comforting to have a sense of what is being monitored. That having been said, be aware that although the NICU is full of other families, noises, and beeping, focusing in on your family and trying to stay calm amidst the commotion is a tall order, but you are up to the task!
6. Understand the hospital schedule All hospital staff works on shifts. So every 8 to 12 hours, you will be dealing with a fresh team of nurses and doctors. While it is different for different hospitals, find out the basic schedule and make sure you have a chance to talk with and give input to your medical team before the shifts change. It might not work all the time, but the more you understand about their plans for your family and the more they understand your needs and concerns, the better the care will be. Especially pay attention to and try to be present when the shifts change, and teams do their “face to face” hand-offs.
7. Make sure you take care of yourself. A NICU stay is a marathon, not a sprint. No matter how long you end up there. Make sure to take care of yourself. EAT. SLEEP. Get some fresh air. You can’t take care of your little one if you are completely drained.
8. Say yes to help. Friends, neighbors, and family will ask what they can do to help, and you may not even know where to start. Make a list, and always say yes. It’s good for you and good for them. If not for yourself, then let them help with your other children or help you do something nice to help your significant other. And if they don’t ask, learn to ask for help. There are lots of unknowns in the hospital, and you always want to preserve your strength when possible.
Raissa Hacohen is co-founder and CEO, CareNav, a network of experienced nurses available for one-on-one virtual consultations to empower and facilitate the health care experience of patients, caregivers, and their families.
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