By: Christine Cox, The Choosy Mommy
My baby, Cam, is almost 7 months old now (actually he’ll be 7 months on Christmas Day!) He has come a long way since he was born 7 weeks early due to me having HELLP Syndrome. You can read more about his birth on HELLP Syndrome: Knowing About It Could Save Lives.
Cam spent 13 days in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU). These were the hardest 13 days my husband and I ever experienced. But they were the first 13 days of Cam’s life and we had to be strong for him.
Luckily we had a team of wonderful doctors and nurses caring for Cam when we couldn’t be there. We made sure we saw him every day but couldn’t be there 24/7 because my husband still had to run his business and I still had to care for my then 2 year old daughter, Capri, at home.
I learned a lot about premature babies in those 13 days. Those two weeks opened my eyes to a whole new world of experiences and firsts – especially as a parent of two children now. And this sensitive time in my life broke me because it was so hard to see the other tiny babies in the NICU just fighting for a chance to live…any parent’s fear. I realized that we take a lot of things for granted, like assuming that infants know how to eat, breathe, swallow and suck and to do some of those things simultaneously! I prayed for Cam to learn as fast as he could to do all of those things just so he could come home sooner but I knew he would learn at his own pace.
We all feel helpless in these kinds of situations because the baby’s fate is usually out of our control. But in case you or someone you know ever becomes a NICU parent, here are some tips for managing this experience.
Eat Healthy - At Choosy Kids, we talk about eating healthy all of the time, but at this point in Cam’s life, he was just learning HOW to eat. Since he was born at 33 weeks, he was supposed to just be learning how to do those things in the womb, but instead, he was forced to learn them on the outside. It was amazing to watch him learn how to do this with the help of medical equipment, his doctors and nurses, but I needed to help too. Eating was a big deal for him. For some reason, he wasn’t able to digest the formula they were giving to him in the beginning (I didn’t even start to pump yet because I was still recovering). But once he got breastmilk, his body adjusted and was able to digest it a lot better. I had to watch what I ate to ensure I was providing the best for him through my milk and still to this day have to watch my dairy intake, as it doesn’t agree with him. The most important thing a mom can do is to FEED the new infant, whether by breastmilk or formula, to establish an early loving relationship. But if you are breastfeeding, make sure you eat a healthy diet and up your calorie intake as suggested by your doctor to ensure you are sharing enough calories with your baby. Also remember to drink a ton of water – you’ll need it!
Just Breathe - Cam also had to learn to keep breathing while he was eating. There were a couple of times that he had bradycardias, or heart rate dips, while he was eating but we were lucky in that he pulled himself out of them. Some babies need to be touched to be reminded to breathe again. “Bradys,” as they call them in the NICU, are quite common. Unfortunately, every time a baby has one, he/she had to stay in our NICU another 5-7 days for monitoring (situation could vary depending on location). This was the hardest thing for me because every morning when I would call to check on him, I prayed he didn’t have a brady because I knew it would just add on extra days to his stay. As a parent, you need to remember to just breathe too. Babies can sense a lot of emotions so if parents are tense and stressed while visiting their NICU infant, they will sense those feelings. Take time throughout your day to just decompress, let out your feelings and just breathe deep.
Be Strong - As a parent, there is only so much I can do with a child in intensive care, but I knew I had to be strong for Cam, Capri, and my husband because they were just as much as part of this experience as I was. To me, being strong meant looking forward to tomorrow as it was one more day closer to Cam coming home. Being strong meant not blaming myself for his early birth because it was out of my control. And finally, being strong meant just being there for him. Holding him, bathing him, even putting clothes on him…these seem like minor things, but he was so little so I had to be confident in my abilities and tell myself that I had the strength to do these things for him.
If you are currently a NICU parent, there are many resources available for you at the hospital. Talk to the nurses and social workers about your situation to ensure you are NICU strong. Choosy Kids also has a CD for babies called Our Special Time. The focus is on daily routines and active learning for early brain development and body awareness, which is perfect for all babies!
Additionally, if you are pregnant, learn more about HELLP Syndrome so you know the warning signs.
I’d love to hear your NICU strong story if you were in this situation. And even if you had an uncomplicated birth experience, how did you overcome any early issues with your new infants – whether it was eating, sleeping, etc. We are all parents so we are in this together!