Leaving Baby at the NICU
A parents’ survival guide for when a preemie needs intensive care
When my husband and I walked out of the maternity ward after our daughter was born, we didn't look like new parents. Other couples carefully carried swaddled bundles to their cars and nervously strapped them into their safety seats, while we held only our overnight bags — and a breast pump. My perfect pregnancy had ended five weeks early, and our 2-day-old daughter was in a neonatal intensive-care unit (NICU). She was breathing through a tube, surrounded by other premature or sick newborns and the beeps of the highly calibrated machines that kept them all alive. It would be three weeks before we'd be able to bring little Abigail home from the hospital.
We were completely unprepared for the weeks that followed her birth: getting used to the sight of her tiny body hooked up to IV lines; watching nurses weigh each soiled diaper; finding terms like "oxygen sats" (the saturation level of oxygen in the blood) and "RDS" (respiratory-distress syndrome) lodged in our conversation; scrubbing our hands and forearms for a full three minutes, five or so times a day, before being allowed to touch our new baby.
Today Abigail is perfectly happy and healthy, and though the traumas of the NICU are long behind her, we, her parents, still remember them well. And we’re not alone: Each year, nearly 13 percent of newborns in the U.S.—some half a million babies— are premature (born at less than 37 weeks), and most will spend some time in an NICU due to complications. The numbers of preterm births are rising, up 36 percent since the early 1980s. Fortunately, with advances in neonatal care and technology, the chances that these babies will survive and thrive are rising too. While some parents are warned that premature birth and a NICU stay is a possibility due to multiple births or a pregnancy condition, many don't know what's ahead until they're in the delivery room. In either case, it's impossible to really prepare for what's behind the doors of an NICU—except to know that, as trying as it may be, miracles happen there every day.
In the beginning, one of the most difficult tasks for parents is redefining what's normal, says Mara Tesler Stein, a Chicago clinical psychologist, whose premature twin girls spent the first eight and a half weeks of their lives in an NICU. "When you give birth to a premature baby, you're dealing with a tiny infant who's fighting for her life," she says.
And though you may feel you're facing this trial alone, you're not. Here, veterans of NICUs, both parents and medical experts, share their advice and experiences.