Each year more than 400,000 premature infants are born in the United States. Becoming a mom to a preemie is a devastating experience. This is especially true after the mother is discharged from the hospital and the baby remains in the NICU. (Neonatal Intensive Care Unit.) Many preemie moms find it difficult to cope with postpartum, making trips to the NICU, taking care of her family and responding to many inquiries from friends and family.
Leaving the NICU
Often, throughout this hectic, stressful time mothers neglect to nurture themselves. But going nonstop will eventually catch-up with you. It’s OK to rest, delegate tasks and simply say “no” to family and friends.
The key words here are “leaving the NICU”, not “leaving your baby.” Often, moms feel if they are not constantly at the NICU their baby won’t recognize them as a parent or caregiver. Some moms worry the hospital staff will think they are unfit and uncaring. This simply is not true. Kelly Feevey went through the preemie experience not once, but twice. Living an hour away from the NICU was stressful. “My first thought when Aaron was born was, ‘How am I going to be a mom to him.’ I was terrified of the bonding issues. I had fears of the nurses charting ‘MOM is NEVER here. Mom and baby are NOT bonding.’ I was in tears about this. As I learned, you bond with your baby anyway,” recalls Feevey about the birth of her oldest son.
Discuss your concerns with the NICU staff. They understand what you are going through. Not only are they caring for your baby, they will also become a support system for you.
Meals and housework
Unfortunately just because your baby is in the NICU your household will not cease to function. Meals need to be made, clothes washed and light housework done. Family and friends want to assist you during this difficult time, yet they often feel helpless. People will offer to cook meals for you and your family. Take them up on the offer, especially if you have other children and a spouse at home to feed.
Meals cooked by others will free up time for you to rest. The same goes for laundry and housework. Allowing others to help does not show weakness on your part.
Responding to inquiries
Friends, relatives and colleagues will have many questions. As time passes answering the same questions by phone, e-mail and in person becomes exhausting. Kimberly Powell, co-author of Living Miracles: Stories of Hope from Parents of Premature Babies gave birth to daughter Senia at 28 weeks gestation. “If I had to do it all again, I’d delegate a family member or friend as a spokesperson. I would have them send out one mass e-mail to all our friends, family and colleagues containing updates and pictures.”
Several preemie parents opt to create a web site and often post new information and photos. This method allows family and friends to stay current on the events.
Spending time with your other children
If you have other children at home, you can spend moments with them by taking advantage of quiet time. Cuddle up in bed and watch a movie, read to them, have them color pictures for the baby or simply ask them questions and listen to what they have to say. Quality time does not mean you have to be physically active. Your child will cherish these quiet interludes as much as they would a game of tag or hide-and-seek.
Young children may not understand why you’re making frequent trips to the hospital. If possible, involve them in some of your visits. Depending on hospital policy, they might be allowed inside the NICU see their sibling or they may have to view them through the glass windows. Either way, your child will feel important and involved in the family.
Your preemie might have a long hospital stay, and eventually you may want to resume the routine you had before the baby’s birth. Carla Brand had a two-year-old son at home when she gave birth to her daughter Celeste at 27 weeks gestation. Brand, like many mothers opted for this route during Celeste’s 72-day NICU stay. “I had to keep daily life as normal as possible for Alex. I had two kids to think about and I had to do what was best for both of them.”
Remembering your spouse
During this stressful time don’t forget about your spouse or partner. Now is an important time to keep the communication open. Often moms and dads react differently to the NICU experience. Moms want to be at the NICU while dads have a tendency to internalize their feelings. Dads often feel powerless and will exert their extra energy and frustration in the form of work. Some dads even shy away from the NICU. Many times this leads the mother to believe the father doesn’t care as much or isn’t affected by this frightening ordeal. Talking with each other and respecting your partner’s viewpoint about your new baby will ease much stress.
Powell lived 65 miles from the NICU. During her daughter’s 49-day stay she realized she couldn’t be there every day. “One day a week I would not make the trip. This was a date day for my husband and I,” says Powell. “During our date we would discuss all the other areas of our life, except our daughter and the current NICU situation. At first it was difficult, but we needed the break. Every other waking moment we were either discussing Senia, visiting Senia or on the road to and from the NICU.”
It’s OK to have fun
Moms have a tendency to feel guilty if they have fun or enjoy themselves while their baby is in the NICU.
Feevey’s oldest son was born on Dec. 15, 1996. “We went out to dinner with friends for New Years,” states Feevey. “We decided it might be the last time in awhile that we would get to go out and what better baby-sitter could we ask for? We visited Aaron in the NICU and then met our friends.”
Right now avoiding stress may seem impossible and many unforeseen events may arise causing added anxiety. Breastfeeding and lack of milk production, for example, can be a huge trigger of stress. Many preemie moms, myself included, had a strong need to breastfeed only to find out Mother Nature was not going to cooperate. A low production of milk, or drying up happens frequently to preemie moms. “Right before Celeste was able to take milk by mouth I dried up and was devastated,” says Brand.
If this happens to you, refrain from worrying over something that’s out of your control. Talk to a lactation consultant and see if she has any tips. After you’ve tried everything with no positive results, don’t be hard on yourself. You know in your heart you wanted to breastfeed and you did all that you could to make it happen.
Perhaps you want to breastfeed but your baby either isn’t ready to latch on or cannot yet take fluids by mouth, leaving you to pump. You might find pumping and keeping up your supply to be an exhausting experience and begin to think about quitting. These thoughts may cause added anxiety because you want your baby to have breastmilk, yet you want to quit pumping. Many moms agonize about this decision. It’s important to realize this is ultimately your choice and if you want to stop pumping you should be able to do so without feeling guilty or being harassed by those who think you need to breastfeed.
The common one-step-forward-five-steps-back scenario is another cause of anxiety. Most preemie parents have experienced this, so take comfort you’re not alone. It’s important to realize you and the medical staff are doing everything possible to make your baby well enough to go home, and the situation is out of your control. You may have to take things minute-by-minute, day-by-day and week-by-week. After many ups and downs during Celeste’s NICU stay Brand came to the conclusion, “Some days things are going to go right, some days things are going to go wrong. You just have to roll with it.”
If you neglect yourself and don’t heed your body’s warning signs you risk jeopardizing your own health. You may have an increase in postpartum bleeding, become run-down and perhaps ill. Eventually, you could be hospitalized to recover.
With the birth of her second preemie, Feevey almost died from preeclampsia. “I only saw Ryan approximately five times in the 14 days he was in the NICU,” she says. “The first few days I was so sick. Then when I did get to see him, I stayed so long I made myself sick and didn’t get back to see him for two more days.”
Your emotional health is also important. Brand found comfort in other preemie moms at the NICU and through online discussion lists. “Find somebody, somewhere, that is going through this experience, or has been-there-done-that, and lean on them or one another,” she advises.
Please remember the NICU experience won’t last forever. Eventually your baby will be home, and then you’ll discover a whole new set of demands. This too shall pass. The roller-coaster ride you feel like you’re on will eventually turn into an easy-going-merry-go-round.
- Living Miracles: Stories of Hope From Parents of Premature Babies, by Kimberly A. Powell and Kim Wilson.
- Your Premature Baby and Child, by Amy E. Tracy.
- Preemie Parenting (www.preemieparenting.com).