10 tips for special care/NICU parents
Mamas, if there's one thing I can truly empathise with it's being a parent of a bubba in special care [or the NICU.] It's a tough gig! Recently I shared some practical tips on getting through this time, but I felt called to share a little more on here... So these are my top ten!
1: Go easy on yourself. Us mamas get lumped with alotta pressure that the arrival of a new bub will be all rainbows and butterflies, that we 'SHOULD' be all loved up with newfound joy and feeling into the bliss bubble that so many of us dream of. The reality is though, sometimes in these early days all we can feel is fear. I've been there. Finding yourself in the special care nursery or neonatal intensive care unit is overwhelming at best and can be downright scary for some. I want you to know it's okay to feel whatever you're feeling. These feelings WILL change and better ones WILL fill their place. Don't forget mama, you just birthed a whole 'nother human into this world! I want you to give yourself a big mental hug [and maybe a fist pump!] because although you may not be able to hold bub just yet, you still got them here, and that in itself is a miracle!
2: Celebrate the tiny milestones. Watching your bub through that incubator or hooked up to wires or tubes is not what any mama dreams of, but as days go by the tubes will come out, the monitoring can be decreased, oxygen can be weaned off... And these small steps are big signs your resilient little love is making their way closer and closer to being at home in your arms. Remember that sometimes in the NICU you'll take 2 steps backwards, before 3 steps forward again. It's a rollercoaster but I promise the time will come for you to step off it. So don't be afraid to celebrate every little victory because although it feels like forever, you're getting there!
3: It can really help to be as involved in bub's care as much as you can. Your level of involvement will totally depend on what stage your little one is at in their development as well as how much clinical support they are requiring. I encourage you to chat with the nurses about what you can do for your little one - but simply being present with them is SO good for all. Talking, singing and reading to your bub will be the most comforting sound they hear and it's so reassuring for them to know you're right there. If you can't yet have bub in your arms, simply holding their hand or stroking their skin through the isolette is soothing. Ask the nurses if you can help with a nappy change or even taking their temperature, and if bub needs tube feeds this may be something you can learn too.
4: Kangaroo Care. There is heaps of research around the medical benefits of this. Developed back in the 70s, kangaroo care was found to hugely increase the survival rate of pre-term bubbas, but these days it's encouraged for all bubbas big and small! Researchers found that premmie bubs who were held close to their mother's bodies for large parts of each day were the ones that thrived. By thriving we're talking improved oxygen levels, improved breathing rates, more successful breastfeeding, improved immune system development, increased weight gain, stabilised heart rate, longer sleep time and earlier hospital discharge. The benefits for new parents are huge too and skin-to-skin is one of the best things you can do for bonding and closeness. It's also awesome for boosting Mama's colostrum supply and encouraging her milk to come in.
You will need to check with staff that your bub is up to it but as soon as they are grab a cosy robe, strip them down to their nappy and place them on your bare chest against your skin. Let them snuggle into your body, breathe in that newborn smell and enjoy the oxytocin.
5: Spending long hours in hospital is exhausting but there are many people there to support you. I've heard some mamas say that a silver lining of having to stay in the hospital meant they had access to more feeding support than they would otherwise have had at home. If you're choosing to breastfeed there are midwives and lactation consultants around who can guide you with feeding. Although it's as natural as it comes, I found breastfeeding is an art to be learnt and it's teamwork between you and bub that takes time and practice to synchronise. Take the opportunity to accept the help as even simple suggestions on bub's head position or having someone observe how they latch can make all the difference. I also found staff amazing at suggesting new postures I could try that really helped save my back. Feeding takes time for your body to get used to so I recommend take up all the support you can get!
6: Know your care team. I can't recommend this enough. Getting to know the people working to get your bub well and home will help you best trust the process. Your little one will have a team of nurses and doctors that may change regularly with their shifts yet there will always be some key main players in the decision making, including consultant doctors, nurse unit managers, specialists and an allied health team. It can help to write down their names as you're introduced to them so if concerns arise you know who to turn to.
7: Maximise YOUR comfort. I focused a lot on this in the post we did earlier and I can't say it enough. The days are long, the chairs are sometimes uncomfortable. Don't be afraid to bring a cushion, a blanket or an eye mask. Make sure you are nourishing your body with good food and plenty of water. Using hand sanitiser in the hospital all day can dry you out big time so why not treat yourself to that lush hand cream. You are a birthing goddess and should be surrounded with the comforts you need.
8: Acknowledge the grief. This is a big one. If you're a special care or NICU mama there's a fair chance you and your bub didn't get your full-term pregnancy, maybe your birth plan went out the window or you've had to forget about any post-birth celebrations. Many births that result in an extended admission are traumatic ones - and nothing like what the parents ever imagined they'd be... And now, amidst it all, you have a whole new rollercoaster to deal with. I'm telling you, the grief surrounding this experience in real! Psychologists call this 'ambiguous loss'. It's a contradiction and it's confusing when we may also have such moments of happiness amidst it all. What makes it tricky is that society expects birth to be all about joy... yet many parents of a premature or unwell baby also feel immeasurable grief. I encourage you to talk to a supportive friend or family member about what you're going through, and if you need extra help don't be afraid to give the Perinatal Anxiety and Depression network (PANDA) a call on 1300 726 306. These guys are amazing!
9: Save memories and cherish moments. Mama, there's no doubt you're going to be tired and you may even be on some meds yourself. These things can make it tricky to recall this time when you look back later. Take ALLLLL the photos and be sure to capture some video footage too, jot down snippets of the little things you notice bub doing, collect a stamp of their tiny footprint or hand, ask a nurse to snap your first family photo. It can help as well to write down your feelings, the good and the not so good. Remember mama, it's all part of it.
10: Don't give up! New parents of bubs in the special care or NICU are some of the toughest peeps I know! You guys have seen it all and had to watch your bub from what feels far too far - when all you want is to be cuddling them at home. Take a deep breath and trust that this will happen soon. This will feel like the hardest thing you've ever done and it certainly may well be, but trust that you'll get there. If this is you I'm sending you the hugest hug and a whole lotta love cos I've been there - but I promise you it gets easier. It's tough mama, but so are you.
Mama's who have been there before, feel free to leave your tips below - you never know who it might help xx