It’s been over two years since our girls called the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU for short) home. If you’ve never stepped foot in a NICU I would describe it as very similar to the sounds of a casino; bells ringing and lights flashing constantly. It’s very jarring at first and takes some getting used to. It’s not what you would expect.
I was fortunate enough to be able to cuddle Zoey when she was first born, but because Ella was an emergency c-section my first time even seeing her was in her incubator in the NICU. I remember walking up to her incubator; she was so tiny and hooked up to what seemed liked a million different lines going into a dozen different machines. She was on a c-pap machine to help keep her lungs clear and numerous others to monitor her breathing and heart rate. Zoey’s incubator had many of the same lines (minus the c-pap) but she had ultraviolet lights on her to keep her bilirubin levels in check. The good news was, since I had received two steroid injections while in labour, the girls’ lungs seemed developed enough to not require being put on an oxygen machine.
Seeing them for the first time was one thing but holding them, that was surreal. They looked small but holding them really made their size apparent.
My husband and I practiced kangaroo care as much as possible to help with their breathing, heart rates, development, comfort and so many other reasons, not to mention holding them was the highlight of our day.
The hardest part was getting used to the continuous sound of alarms bleeping in the room. Not just the ones for our girls but for the other preemies in the NICU as well; many were false alarms but that didn’t make it any less jarring. It was definitely a learning experience. Every time their monitors would sound I would jump and feel a rush of panic come over me. After one of the many times that I questioned the nurses about the alarm they said to me “If we’re not panicking, you shouldn’t either.” This was good advice and helped to keep me sane.
Within four days in the Toronto NICU our girls were transferred to our local NICU once they were deemed stable to transfer and no longer needing such a high level of care.
It’s supposed to be a good sign when your little ones are set to transfer, but I’ll admit, it doesn’t make it any less nerve wracking. Watching you little three-pound babies being strapped into a mobile incubator and wheeled into an ambulance is an experience that takes a lot out of a parent.
In the days and weeks that followed my husband and I learned about the importance of hand washing, we learned how to handle and care for newborn preemies and I was able to focus on pumping, pumping, pumping to get our little girls the milk that they needed.
When it comes to NICU babies the one thing I can tell you is to expect two steps forward and one step back when it comes to their heath and development. It was a very difficult concept to grasp; all that we ever wanted was for them to get better every day, but with premature babies it’s definitely a roller coaster. The girls would hit amazing little milestones like getting their IV’s out and then they would get a sick, or they would latch amazing one day and not the next.
I’ve been asked many times my opinion of the NICU and how I felt about our girls having to spend the first six weeks of their lives there. Let me be clear, do I wish that my girls had made it to full term? Of course. But they didn’t; they were born at 31 weeks and 4 days gestation. They were 3 lbs 2 oz and 3 lbs 4 oz when they were born. They needed help with breathing, with feeding, to keep warm, they needed help in so many areas that many full term babies do not. Our NICU experience was a great one. We learned as much as we possibly could, had full trust in all of the nurses caring for our girls. As much as we wanted nothing more than for our girls to come home, we also knew that it was important for the girls to be there getting the best care possible.
For anyone who has a baby in the NICU here are a few tips and ideas that you might find useful.
1) If the nurses indicate that your little one might be there over a week look into purchasing a parking pass. It could end up saving you hundreds of dollars.
2) If the hospital is a certain distance away from your home and you meet the criteria, you could be a candidate to live at the Ronald McDonald House.
3) If you’re not a candidate for the Ronald McDonald House see if the hospital has an agreement for a discounted room at a nearby hotel.
4) Pack a lunch. Buying at the hospital cafeteria day after day will get pricey.
5) You might not love the breast pump at the hospital. If you don’t have one already consider renting a hospital grade one from Shoppers Home Health. I’d also recommend purchasing a pumping band (Natures Emporium is where I got mine), it allowed me to have both hands free while pumping. Also check to see if your insurance company covers the cost of your pump.
6) Bring a journal with you. I started writing down how I felt during my pregnancy and continued on writing while the girls were in hospital. Everyday I would write down their triumphs and their setbacks. Writing it down helped me remember every detail because life at that stage was a blur.
But the best advice I can offer is to learn as much as you can. It’s a wonderful opportunity to pick the brains of the nurses and lactation consultants there. Believe me, as much as you want nothing more than to bring them home, they’re in there for a reason. Once they come home the nurses won’t’ be right there by your side to answer your questions, they won’t have monitors on them to constantly make sure their hearts are beating strong and their breathing is stable, and the lactation consultants won’t be there for hands on help if you need it. So don’t rush them home, take in as much as you can while they’re there and eventually, when they’re good and ready, they’ll come home.