Leaving Baby at the NICU
A parents’ survival guide for when a preemie needs intensive care
Learn About Risks For Preterm Labor
While I was in early labor, walking the halls of the hospital, my husband and I strolled right past the NICU but paused to watch the newborns in the well-baby nursery, even though I was only 35 weeks pregnant and it was highly likely that our baby would spend some time in the NICU. Indeed, hours later she was there.
If there's a chance you may deliver preterm—if you're on bed rest or carrying more than one baby, for instance—ask to meet the neonatologist and, above all, get a tour of the NICU. "You can begin building a rapport with the staff before the birth and learn a little about what to expect," says Terri Slagle, M.D., the Director of California Pacific’s Neonatal Outreach Program, in San Francisco.
Karen Cork, of Calgary, Canada, knew she was at risk of preterm delivery, and says that getting a sneak peak of the neonatal intensive-care unit was a real plus: "I remember seeing a beautiful twenty-four-and-a-half-weeker in her parents' arms and thinking, If she can make it, so could our thirty-two-weeker."
Expect To Feel Scared At First
Even with preparation, the first few days following the birth are terribly difficult. "When I saw our son after he was born, I was scared to death," says Marybeth Roberts, a Philadelphia mother whose son, Connor, was born at 27 weeks and spent two months in the hospital. "The NICU felt cold, my hormones were high, and it was the least rational hour of my life. I didn't know how I was going to love this tiny infant with a head the size of a tangerine." Roberts's feelings weren't unusual. In fact, some parents of extremely early preemies find it difficult even to name their infant, fearing the baby will die.
No doubt when you imagined getting to know your newborn, you didn't picture a two- to three-pound infant behind a tangle of tubes and wires. "But keep in mind that you are the baby's parent. Even though she's in the hospital, trust in your ability to begin parenting," says Jeanette Zaichkin, a clinical nurse specialist at Providence St. Peter Hospital, in Olympia, Washington, and the author of Newborn Intensive Care: What Every Parent Needs to Know.
Many parents soon realize, as Roberts eventually did, that their baby is theirs to love and care for. No matter how small he is, he needs your love and touch—something technology can't provide.