These girls, it seems, are determined to do nothing the simple way. Just like their mum. The first weeks of their lives have been joyous, exhausting, exhilarating and frightening in varying measure. One spent 2 weeks, the other almost 3 weeks, in the neonatal intensive care unit, learning how to eat, digest, breathe and the other kind of stuff that comes in handy when one wants to, you know, be alive.
I hope to one day write more exhaustively about living through that experience, and the difficulty of taking one girl home and leaving the other in hospital, but for now here are a few immediate pointers for anyone facing time in the NICU:
#1: Don’t be scared unless you have reason to be. The nurses and doctors were truly fantastic, and were taking much better care of the nubbins than we could have managed at home, given their high-level needs. Have faith and let the professionals care for your babies.
#2: Look for wins. Any wins. Your baby did a poop? High five! Didn’t poop, but managed to semi-digest 3 millilitres of your breast milk? Fantastic! You had to leave your baby in hospital, but managed to get 5 hours of sleep? Take it while you can. There are ways to find positives – even teeny, tiny positives – in very trying circumstances. This is the time to get good at doing just that.
#3: Get the breast pump while you can. There were more mum than pumps in the NICU, so there were times I was left to stalk the area like a leopard eyeing off wary gazelle. If you can get the pump 5 minutes before you planned to go looking for one, grab it immediately and start pumping.
#4: Give your baby whatever cuddles/contact you can. At the start, we could only reach into the incubator and touch our girls’ hands for brief periods of time. Contact stressed them out. We sneaked little snippets of hand-rubbing, but left it at that until they could handle a bit more.
#5: Or don’t. You miss them and desperately want a cuddle? Tough. You just want to touch their hand? Forget it. You are starving hungry, but your restless baby is best soothed by the sound of your voice? Forget the food/drink/whatever and get talking. You hate leaving one in hospital while the other comes home? Toughen up and get good at juggling the two priorities. This is the moment that you deeply realize you don’t count. And you’re tough. Their needs come first – whether it’s to be touched, not to be touched, to come home, or not to come home – and you’re a big girl. Whatever you have to handle, you can handle.
#6: Don’t be afraid to parent when you get the chance. You will get the chance to change a nappy, hold a bottle, give a bath, or offer a breast. It’ll come, so look forward to the day and get ready to parent even before you get your baby home. It’ll help everything feel more normal.
#7: Make good use of amazing resources. The hospital I was at had social workers, lactation consultants, nurses, doctors and more, all ready to give advice whenever needed. Make good use of it! We’ve had very few latching and feeding problems, thanks mostly to all of the help we received early on. Consider it one of your wins for point #2.
#8: Take the opportunity to run any errands NOW. If your baby is in the NICU, chances are it was unexpectedly early or came with unexpected issues. Either way, there are probably many errands still left to run before you get your bubba home. Run them now. NOW! You won’t get another chance any time soon.
#9: Say hi to the other mums, but don’t ask too many questions. Beyond the basics of each babe – when was it born, boy/girl, etc – all of the parents in the NICU are juggling with difficult situations. When you chat, be mindful that not everyone will want to share. Keep it light and not too detailed. If someone wants to tell you more, they will.
#10: Have at least one thing to look forward to. For us, it was the week-long holiday we have booked at the beach later this summer. During the hardest moments – and there were a few – we sat and talked about how much fun that week will be, and imagined all of the good things that we’ll have during that time. It might have proved futile, we knew, but at times it was one of the only ways to stay positive. Get something solid and grasp it for all you have.
There’s more, but this is enough for now. Most of all, though, rest assured that if your baby is in the NICU, it’s exactly where it needs to be. And know that you’re not alone. Not by a long shot. That doesn’t make it easier, but it does make it less lonely.