November is National Prematurity Awareness Month. I know this because my own child was born one-hour into her 29th week of pregnancy.
To say that her birth rocked our world, well, is an understatement. When your baby arrives early or spends time in a Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (known as the NICU) , whether it's for weeks or if they stay just a few hours; it's overwhelming.
You feel like you're living in a dreamland, and it's hard to stay present and in the moment, let alone to think of things that might make the time a little more bearable. So, here are just a few ideas to help during this time of stress:
- Ask for help and be specific: Having a baby in the NICU will take all of your focus. Trust me on this. Little things, "behind-the-scenes" things that keep your days and household running, may feel like monumental tasks. If you have well-meaning friends and family, ask them to do specific things for you. You will not be a burden, I promise.
Have someone walk the dogs while you're spending time at your baby's bedside or recovering from birth. Ask for meals (breakfasts, lunch and dinners) dropped off on your doorstep, or brought to the hospital in disposable containers, or to have a Meal Train set up on your behalf. Request that someone change your sheets and remake your bed, so that when you come back home each night from the hospital, you can fall asleep in a freshly made bed. Little things will make the biggest difference in not only your stress level, but your life during this time. You can use scheduling tools like this one to help organize all of the support.
- Journal: Whether you write for yourself, for your family or for the general public, journal your experiences, your feelings, and what's going on with your baby. There are a few ways you do this, from the traditional notebook and pen to an online journal. Some families even create and maintain a blog during their NICU journey.
Journaling gives you a safe, judgement-free space to share your story. Having a healthy outlet, where you can freely vent about the joys and frustrations of your baby's NICU stay provides a place to get it all out. Plus, if you feel comfortable sharing your thoughts with friends and family, your entries will also give you an easy way to share updates with everyone, and prevent you from having to expend the energy repeating yourself multiple times.
- Take pictures: Your baby might be the size of a kitten, but they're still your baby and this is their newborn period. Take photos each day to remember their growth and successes. Some parents will even take a picture next to the same object each day to demonstrate the rapid growth that their preemies have!
And Parents? Get IN those photos too! It might seem hard to believe it, but one day you'll want to show off how tiny your little one started out in life, or how they could fit inside one hand. Preemies are pretty incredible humans, and you'll want those memories together in the years to come.
- Take care of yourself: Preemie parents are a special kind of parents. You'll discover that you have strength and endurance beyond your wildest dreams. You may feel like you can stay up all the hours of a day or go a long time between meals. It can also feel impossible to leave your baby's bedside sometimes, especially if they're experiencing a health crisis that day. However, it is SO important that you care for yourself, as you care for your preemie. Try to sleep in a bed, or at least on a flat surface, each day or night. Go outside for a walk, even for twenty minutes, to breath fresh air and feel a little sunshine on your face. Get yourself a ridiculous tabloid magazine or listen to a funny podcast. Eat real food, not just hospital cafeteria or vending machine food. Call your friends or family to say hello, or to break down and cry if you need it.
The NICU is a place of hope and healing, but it can easily feel like a sun-less prison if you let it. Give a little back to yourself. Your baby will need you, in your strongest, most available form.
- Ask questions and be involved: Author Alexa Stevenson says in her book, Half Baked: The Story of My Nerves, My Newborn, and How We Both Learned To Breathe, that having a baby in the NICU is similar to being "it's monarch: a ceremonial figurehead of ostensible importance, but with little ability to effect change. I may have been the Mother, but my role was mostly symbolic and my job description unclear."
It will feel overwhelming to suddenly have a crash-course in neonatology, but make an effort to learn the terms, phrases, and words you hear being used about your baby. If you don't know what something means, ask for clarification in clear, understandable explanations. Show up everyday at rounds with your baby's care team of doctors and nurses, and be visible, be involved, ask questions about their care, their prognosis and their plan for discharge. Our NICU had regular "care times", where our daughter's vitals were monitored and her diaper changed. Those care times eventually became our feeding times, where we learned and practiced breastfeeding together, with the help of our nurses and IBCLC.
These experts, the doctors and hospital staff that care for your baby, they're the medical experts. You, and only you, are your baby's expert. Exercise that right, and don't feel afraid to ask for clarity if and when you need it.
Later this month, I'll share a few things related to Prematurity Awareness, including things your friends and family can do to support you and things they shouldn't do. You'll also hear from our IBCLC about feeding your preemie, and I'll share my family's personal NICU story.
If you're reading this from the NICU, please hear there now: Having a preemie is hard. It just is. You are so strong, and you are exactly what your baby needs right now. If we can be of any support, in anyway, to you or your family during this time, please reach out to us.