Every day you go to the NICU to stand watch over your tiny baby in the incubator or help with what they need. It’s a desperate time of watching for signs that soon your little one will breathe on their own and regulate their body temperature so they can come home. And every day the NICU nurses are there to care for you and your baby, protecting life.
Only a special person has the kind of gigantic heart that can bear being side-by-side with terrified parents and their struggling babies who haven’t finished growing. A NICU nurse’s compassion and wisdom has carried many parents through the dark days right after birth to the shining day they walk out the door to home, baby in arms.
We asked NICU nurse Anne Birkett, RN from the March of Dimes what it’s like to do her job, and here’s what she told us:
Anytime you hand a baby to their mom or dad to hold for the first time is an unexplainable moment of happiness. And signing discharge paperwork that allows a baby who has spent the first months of their life in NICU to experience sunshine and fresh air for the first time is amazing to witness.
No one understands the slow pace of time more than NICU parents anxiously waiting to see their vulnerable baby grow stronger. But preemie development is a dance with life—one step forward, one back, two forward, one back. Though you only want to see forward progress, those back-steps are an invisible part of moving forward—they show that your baby is learning to manage the demands of life. Every time we learn a new skill, failing at it helps us do it better the next time. That’s what your baby is doing, too.
Make sure to celebrate every step forward and try not to get too hung up on the steps backward.
As if life wasn’t already jam-packed enough before your baby went into the NICU, managing the extra demands, the new techniques, the paperwork, the fear, the financial changes, the needs of your older children or pets, and the frequent questions from folks who love you…it’s a lot. And as a mom, you are trying to heal from birth, too. You need rest to recover, but instead you’re spending hours at the NICU. Maybe you’re feeling guilty because you’re not at home with your children; maybe you’re stressed by pressure from your job; maybe getting to and from the NICU is about as easy as climbing Mt. Everest in an ice slide.
Find a good routine of spending time in the NICU and taking time away from the NICU to rest and recover. If someone offers to help, take it! Ask for meals, for them to do your laundry, spend time with your other children, etc. Friends and family who offer to help really do want to, they just often don’t know how.
Being in the NICU with all its machines, sounds, smells, and people in scrubs can be overwhelming and intimidating. So many people seem to have the answers for the baby you just spent months growing…so where does maternal or paternal intuition fit between feeding schedules, lab tests, and medications? Your impressions matter! When you see something (or intuitively feel something), say something. Nurses and doctors are experienced professionals who want you to bring your preemie home as soon as possible. They’re also human beings who can miss or misinterpret something.
Always, always, always ask questions about your baby’s medical care and share any feelings or ideas you have—you are their parents and know your baby best!
When your little darling is ready, there’s nothing more comforting, strengthening, and encouraging for them than being skin-to-skin with mom or dad or sibling or grandma or... Kangaroo care is so helpful that nearly every hospital has incorporated it into their baby care—especially in the NICU. Putting your diapered but not dressed preemie against your naked chest and covering you both with a warm blanket is the best way to stimulate growth, reduce stress, and soothe your baby (and yourself). Skin-to-skin contact just can’t be beat for bonding with your wee one, and instilling hope for the future.
Kangaroo care is one of the best things moms, dads, and other trusted caregivers can do for their baby. Holding a baby skin to skin can help keep the baby warm, stabilize their heart rate and oxygen saturations, help them gain weight, improve their sleep and assist in brain development. For parents, it can help you bond with your baby and reduce stress, and for moms it has been shown to increase breast milk supply. Kangaroo care as often as you can for as long as you and baby can!
Someday, you’ll be the post-NICU parent with experience that can help parents who come after you. For new NICU parents, getting answers from the hospital staff is super important—but hearing how earlier preemie parents handled the NICU challenges helps shine a light in the wilderness .
Reach out to the volunteer services department at your local hospital and they will be able to tell you if volunteers are needed in their NICU or antepartum unit. Additionally, if you want to volunteer outside a hospital setting, your local March of Dimes chapter may have volunteer opportunities available. Some hospitals have Family Advisory Councils for graduate families to participate and provide feedback regarding their NICU experience. You can also check with your hospital to see if there are opportunities for parent mentorship, which allows you to support the NICU journey of a current NICU family by providing valuable support and guidance.
How do you thank someone for saving your baby?
For encouraging you to see things in a positive way? For explaining how to give that first bath? For answering the 49 questions you had yesterday? For updating you on your baby’s progress and telling you what you can do today to help? For tucking a blanket around you and your preemie as you snuggled during kangaroo care? For rejoicing with you as you pack up your baby and go home?
NICU nurses love what they do. I have never worked with a NICU nurse who doesn’t truly believe they have the best job in the world. A simple handwritten thank you note is something all nurses treasure. And the way to a nurse’s heart (besides being a cute baby!) is through their stomachs. :)
And if you want to tell your birth, preemie, or parenting story, the March of Dimes would love to hear it! Share it at their Unspoken Stories page.