Its never easy when your baby has an extended stay in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit. Even if you have advanced notice that its a possibility, you can never fully prepare yourself for the wide range of emotions, bone- aching exhaustion, fear, and the eventual excitement when you bring your baby home. However, there are ways that you can empower yourself and your family for a NICU stay, whether you know it might happen, or if it comes as a complete surprise. A birth doula can also be a valuable support system when you have a baby that needs to go to the NICU. They can stay with you while your partner goes to the NICU with the baby, make sure that you have food and drink, and also support both you and your partner as they try to navigate the NICU.
I spoke with Balanced Birth Support's birth doula Charlotte Lippincott about how to not simply survive your NICU stay, but also bond and actively participate in your baby care. She says "It's never easy to have your baby go to the NICU, but we can relieve some of the anxiety by knowing a bit more about what to expect and the ways you can be involved with your little one's care. Most often NICUs welcome and support parent involvement, and research (and instincts!) tells us that kangaroo care and bonding help baby grow strong and healthy."
Kangaroo Care / Skin to Skin
Kangaroo Care or Skin to Skin is the act of holding your baby on your bare chest, close to your heart for an extended period time. With all of the wires attached to the baby, a nurse can help you get your baby settled so both of you are comfortable, and often will place a blanket over you and your baby to keep you both warm. The March of Dimes lists many ways that skin to skin is beneficial for both mother and baby. For baby, the benefits include keeping the baby warm and calm, can help with weight gain, and being close to your heartbeat and your breathing can help your baby regulate those systems as well. For the mother, being close to your baby helps with your breastmilk supply, keeps you calm and less stressed, and helps you feel connected to your baby. Your partner can also do skin to skin with the baby, increasing their bond as well.
Unfortunately, there are some situations and policies that prevent kangaroo and skin to skin, so make sure to talk about it with your nurses and doctors to make sure that they know how important it is to you.
If you are unable to do kangaroo care, there are many ways that you and your partner can still bond with your baby, like singing, reading, talking, holding their hand, and generally letting your baby know that you are there.
Communication is Key
Charlotte emphasizes the importance of communication with your babies care team, and don't hesitate to ask questions and for clarification "Talk to your nurses about what types of stimulation and interaction are most helpful for you baby, as it will vary based on how early they are born. Reading, talking and singing are all stimuli that can help with language development, but also ask the nurses when you can begin to help change your baby’s diaper, take temperature, give baths and other routine care. Learning and tending to your baby’s needs and cues throughout their NICU stay can make for a smoother transition home as well!"
Planning to Breastfeed?
Breastfeeding is the best food for your premature baby. It helps protect them against all sorts of illnesses, including necrotizing enterocolitis. It also contains proteins, vitamins, and minerals that will help your baby grow and develop.
Charlotte recommends pumping if you If you plan to breastfeed but baby isn’t yet able. "Ideally, you should start pumping within 6 hours of delivery. You can ask your nurse for an electric pump (which is typically covered by insurance) and a lactation consultant can help you get started with pumping and hand expression techniques until baby is ready to latch." Many hospitals have hospital grade pumps that you can rent after you have been discharged from the hospital.
Learn more about breastfeeding your premature infant from KellyMom. Here you will find a ton of resources on feeding and caring for your premature baby.
Caring for Yourself
During this chaotic and emotional time, its easy to exhaust and push yourself aside as you care for the baby. Charlotte wants all NICU families to remember to take care of yourself-be sure to rest and nourish your body and spirit. There are resources to support you beyond your immediate support network; hospitals have social workers and sometimes offer peer support groups that can provide guidance, and the internet is another great tool for connecting with other parents who are going through, or have gone through, a NICU experience of their own. Don't hesitate to ask questions, ask for resources, and remember you're not alone!
Also, accept the help of friends and family who want to bring you food, go shopping, clean your house, walk your dog, or whatever else needs to be done while you are supporting your baby in the NICU. A postpartum doula can also be a valuable resource after your baby comes home, to help you with baby care and household tasks, as well as answer questions and generally be available to talk and process your birth and NICU stay. A postpartum doula is often one of the first to notice symptoms of postpartum health disorders and can help you find resources.
Charlotte Lippincott is a BBS birth doula who shared her wisdom and experience gained from supporting families who had a baby in the NICU. Charlotte supports all types of births in the DC metro area, and the Eastern Shore of Maryland. If you're interested in getting to know her further, visit her online profile!
Author: Renee Corbino
Renee keeps Balanced Birth Support organized and amazing as the Administrative Manager. She lives in Sarasota, Florida with her husband and two cute little boys. She is a breech birthing mama and supporter of empowering births.