Two months ago I waddled out the door to the hospital. I was 41 weeks and two days pregnant, and we had an appointment to induce that evening. But one hour before our induction appointment, I started having contractions.
From that moment on, it’s been a whirlwind. This little lady has definitely kept us on our toes! Our first two months have been far from perfect. My daughter Samantha (Sammi) spent the first 10 days of her life in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU) due to Meconium Aspiration. At the time, my husband and I didn't share what we were going through because something about our daughter's health felt sacred and off limits for public consumption. I hesitated to put this blog post out for that same reason.
But ultimately, we decided to open up about our experience in the interest of supporting other moms. NICU mommies are like a special, secret tribe. In order to support other women who find themselves an unhappy member of this tribe, like I did, here are my tips on surviving the NICU, based on what I went through.
Embrace the Pain
One of the coping mechanisms women are taught as they prepare for labor (particularly, natural labor) is to embrace the pain, rather than try to avoid it or resist it. Once your child is taken from your arms after delivery (if they ever make it there--mine didn't) and whisked off to the NICU, your first few days are going to be very different from how you may have imagined them.
As a NICU Mommy, your story isn't going to look like you thought it would. It's not going to look like anyone else's story, or like the stories you see in movies, or on Pampers commercials. You won't have that happy, smiling photo of you and your partner holding your baby in your arms moments after her birth. But Mama, this is your story. Your beautiful, imperfect, painful, exhausting, but ultimately triumphant story.
It may be days, weeks, or months before you get to take your infant home. No matter how short or long your NICU stay is, there will be setbacks and challenges before your little one can discharge. Your patience and strength will be tested. If you let your mind go to the, "This isn't how I thought it would be," or "I wish it weren't happening like this," or "It's so unfair this is happening to us," place(s), you'll only making the experience harder on yourself.
For better or worse, this is how your story is playing out. The best thing you can do for both yourself and your infant is to embrace this imperfect story, and be super present for the days to come. It will end, eventually. At some point, you'll look back and wonder, "Did that really happen?"
Once I learned my daughter would be staying in the NICU for at least a week to undergo a course of antibiotics--and therefore, would not be coming home from the hospital with me when I discharged two days after her birth--an instinctual part of me took over. This part of me knew that I would need to be completely present in order to get myself and my daughter through this experience.
I turned the notifications off on my phone's various messenger apps. I stayed off social media. I only checked in with a few people to update them on my daughter's status. I didn't read, I didn't watch T.V., I didn't listen to podcasts, or the radio. Not even news. In the car on the way to the hospital, and at home or during pumping sessions, I listened to music. Coldplay, reggae, and silly but familiar artists from the 80's, or my favorite bands from college, were heavy in my Spotify rotation.
I also limited my social interaction to only people that I felt really safe with, and who were read-in on the situation, so that I didn't have to go into a lot of exhausting explanation of what was happening with my daughter, or "perform" for anyone. Really, the only people I had meaningful interaction with during this time were my husband and my mom. I did have a few light interactions with friends, but I kept that to an absolute minimum.
It's important to note that I didn't cut myself off from the outside world and screen time to punish myself, or deprive myself of pleasure. I did it to conserve my energy, and as an act of self love. I didn't want to drain myself by rehashing updates to countless people, or having to manage comments and replies, or deal with other people's feelings about the situation.
Being off-the-grid was a gift I gave myself during those agonizing 10 days, as someone who is SUPER on-the-grid most of the time. I wanted to conserve all of my mental, emotional, and physical energy to support my daughter's recovery. And that meant staying completely present, rather than numbing out on my phone.
Be a Slave to Your Routine
Routine is your savior during any stressful time. As a NICU Mommy, you've got to eat, sleep, pump, take care of your postpartum recovery, and be at that baby's bed side as much as you can (while not draining yourself or going crazy). Once you get through the first few days of sheer survival mode, try to establish a routine, in collaboration with your partner and support system. Stick to that routine as best you can, so that you're not constantly having to expend energy on deciding what to do next, or allowing anything (especially your own self-care) to slide.
My routine looked something like this:
If you try to be in the NICU for 12 hours a day, you will go crazy and that stress will effect the baby. I wanted so badly to be there every second, but I found that taking a break for my own self-care mid-morning helped a lot. This ensured I didn't have any postpartum recovery issues, and kept me energized for the times that I was there next to her, so that time was more high quality.
Obviously, your schedule will vary depending on how far you live from the hospital, the NICU hours at your hospital, you and your baby's own medical situation, and the other demands upon you and your partners' time (work, etc.). You don't have to keep the same routine I did, but sticking to this allowed me to get 4-6 hours of sleep per night, squeeze in a short nap, pump at least 8 times a day, eat 3 times a day, get 2 "sits baths," be present for 3 bedside feedings, get skin-to-skin time with my baby, plus attend doctor's rounds every morning. However you manage your time, make sure you're getting it all in!
Lean on Loved Ones
I have to plug my husband here--he was my rock during this time. I couldn't have gotten through this without him, and I'm so grateful to have a loving, supportive partner by my side. Even if you don't have a significant other that you're co-parenting with, this is a time to lean on those you love, and who love you. As I said, I kept this limited to my husband and my mother. But call in the people that you feel safe with, and lean on them hard for support.
My husband and I also wrestled with whether or not we should both try to be there together all the time. You have to do what is right for you, and what allows you to maintain sanity and keep your life on track. Ultimately, we decided it would be best for him to go back to work after the first week of Sammi's life. He would come and relieve me in the NICU in the evenings, when I would go to pump for the final time at the hospital. This also gave him a chance to bond with her.
I couldn't bear the thought of being alone in the NICU those last few days while my husband was at work, so my mom came to town and did the NICU hours with me for the final few days. She made sure I remembered to eat, and take my sits baths. She did chores while I got a quick nap in during the day. She went home when my husband arrived at the NICU in the evenings to cook dinner for us, so we could eat, pump, and crash when we got home. Between my husband and my mom, I never drove myself to-and-from the hospital, which was best for all of us. Having my mom by my side was so comforting, and one some level she understood my feelings and what I was going through physically better than any man could, so it meant the world to have her there with me!
As a new mom, your hormones are still all over the place, in addition to the stress of having an unwell child. So don't be afraid to ask for what you need from your loved ones, and make sure you and your partner have communicated clearly about what everyone needs to make it through this stressful time. Don't put pressure on yourselves to go it alone. These are the times that your loved ones can step in and support you!
Be Kind & Do No Harm
Above all, be sure to be so, so kind to yourself during your infant's NICU stay. If you need to stay away for part of the day to maintain your sanity, or use the NICU's family room to be fully present for a 24-hour period (I did this my daughter's final day in the hospital--I had to ask, they didn't tell me it was an option), do whatever is right for you, your child, and your family.
Remember that you are no good to your child if you aren't taking care of yourself, so don't let your self-care slide. Postpartum recovery is difficult under the best of circumstances, and even tougher when you're sitting upright in an uncomfortable hospital chair for 8-12 hours a day. That baby needs you to be your best, healthiest, most energetic self when you are able to take her home. Do no harm to yourself during this difficult time, and stay on top of your self care so that you're able to be the best mommy you can be!
Ultimately, we are grateful to have a happy, healthy baby. The medical care we received was outstanding and we are blessed to have that kind of care available to us. Now that I have some distance from it, my experience of motherhood is no longer defined by this early trauma.
Our family is sending so much love and support to all the NICU Mommies out there--you can do it, Mama! Even though it will feel like an eternity while you're in the thick of it with your baby's NICU stay, the time will pass, and your baby will make it home with you. We are so happy to have Sammi home with us and living a happy, healthy life!
Do you have a story or some tips to share? Please post those in the comments below!
Note: some NICU stays do end in fatalities, and for those dealing with this type of situation, my heart goes out to you. I haven't addressed those circumstances here, but this piece is a great resource for anyone dealing with the loss of an infant.