Birth is supposed to be a time of great happiness and joy, but when your baby is born premature or with a health problem, it can be a frightening and confusing experience. Learning to be a parent in the neonatal intensive care unit may not be what you were expecting or hoping for, but we’re here to make things easier. We’ve got simple tips to help you and your baby get to know each other and offer suggestions on how to care for your own well-being at the same time.
Create a support network
Having a baby in the NICU is an intense experience and may throw your life out of whack for a while. Don’t be shy to ask for support from family and friends. If people offer to help, be ready with suggestions of what you need. Home-cooked meals, babysitting for older children, grocery shopping, housekeeping help and gift certificates to local take-out restaurants are all good ideas. You might want to find a support group for NICU parents where you can share your feelings in a safe environment.
Be an advocate for your baby
The neonatal care team is doing everything they can to help your baby grow and get strong enough to go home. But there are important things you can do, as well. If your baby is well enough to leave the incubator, ask to cuddle him kangaroo style. Kangaroo care is one of the most powerful healing methods in the NICU. Babies kept in kangaroo care thrive better and experience increased warmth, improved breathing, more stable heart rates, deeper sleep, more quiet alert states, decreased crying, increased weight gain, increased breastfeeding and shorter hospital stays.
Breastfeeding in the NICU
You can also ask to breastfeed your baby if he is strong enough to suck. If not, expressing your milk to be fed to your baby through an NG tube is an excellent option. Premature babies face a higher risk of infection because of their immature immune systems. Fortunately, your breast milk contains antibodies, extra calories, vitamins and protein specifically designed to protect and nourish your baby at his gestational age.
Bonding with your preemie
Learning to care for a preemie or infant with a health condition takes a unique set of skills. Watch the nurses as they care for your baby and as your baby gains strength, ask to help. You can change your baby’s diaper, give him a bath, take his temperature or change his clothes. You can also learn how to touch your baby in ways that feel comfortable to him. Preemies are often much more sensitive to touch because of their immature nervous systems. Gentle, still touch is often the most comforting and can even impart health benefits to your infant. As the day approaches for you to take your baby home, you will feel more confident in your abilities to care for your precious little one.
Take care of yourself
When your baby is sick, it is hard to leave his side even to do important things like sleep, bathe or have a meal. But it is critical that you take care of yourself during this time so that you have the energy to continue to care for your baby. The NICU is a safe place and the medical team is doing everything they can to take good care of your newborn. Make some time each day for yourself, whether it is to go for a run, have a cup of coffee, write in your journal or talk on the phone with a friend. Even just a few minutes can do wonders to rejuvenate your mind, body and spirit.