5 Things I Want Everyone to Know During NICU Awareness Month
I will never forget my first time in a NICU.
I was a new mother, still recovering from an incredibly traumatic delivery of my first rainbow baby. But that was not why I was in the NICU. I was actually visiting my husband who was a brand new pediatric resident. He was on his NICU rotation and I hadn’t seen him in what seemed like forever, so I had gathered up our newborn and headed to the hospital to grab dinner in the hospital cafeteria with him.
As I stood just inside the NICU at the clerk station waiting for him, a nurse walked past me holding a baby who fit in the palm of her hand, who didn’t look like any baby I had ever seen. I was stunned, and the lump in my throat was impossible to swallow. I felt overwhelming compassion for the baby’s parents, and I thought about that baby constantly. I couldn’t ask anything about the baby, but my mind dwelt on this tiny person, and my interest in the tiniest and mightiest among us never left me.
When my husband told me he had decided to specialize in neonatology, I started amassing books to read about this new adventure we were about to set out on. I wanted to know more about the babies, but I also was interested in the well-being of the parents. While our own journey into parenthood had been heartbreaking because of two losses as well as joyous because of four healthy boys, we had not personally known and loved someone who had experienced the NICU with their own children. That is, not until 2007. That was the year our dear friends delivered premature 24-week twins. My first visit in the NICU where I encountered that baby was suddenly magnified a million times as I watched my friend’s precious twins in the NICU. I was a godmother for one of them, and I prayed for all of them constantly and watched as the experience of the NICU affected the entire family.
NICU awareness is so important because it changes you when you understand what happens to babies and families behind those doors. Moments of happiness and moments of heartache walk hand-in-hand through the hallways of a NICU. To say “the struggle is real” is truly an understatement.
There are babies so tiny that their fingers are webbed, their eyes are completely fused shut and their skin is shiny and translucent. There are also babies who are big, close to or perhaps even slightly beyond full-term, who may have a congenital heart defect or a genetic disorder. A different scene, but the emotions can be the same: fear, loss, grief, guilt, anger, sadness, frustration… the list goes on and on.
So what should we all learn during NICU Awareness Month?
Here are a few things I think are important:
1. Every family, no matter the gestation at birth, can struggle with being in the NICU.
2. Parents need intensive care just like their baby. It is imperative to the long-term health and well-being not only of the parents but the baby as well.
3. Parents of NICU babies can have all the desires and wishes of parents who don’t have babies in the NICU. They long to hold their child, to feed their child, to be the first one to give them a bath, a feeding, a diaper change.
4. We should do everything to make parent moments available in the NICU. In spite of the wires, the extra work and the extra time it takes to do it, we must make it a priority. They are still parents while in the NICU. Every opportunity to parent their child they would have at home should be no different in the NICU. We must validate, equip, encourage and support them as they begin their parenthood adventure. They will be the ones caring for this child after the NICU, so they should be supported in these activities while still in the NICU.
5. Every time we access a baby’s vital signs and cues, we should be accessing these in the parent as well. Parent well-being, like baby well-being, is important.
Do you know a NICU parent? Take some time to connect with them and learn more about the NICU and their experience there. Your time will be well spent, and this simple act of kindness will mean the world to a parent who has made or is currently making a journey through the NICU.
A version of this post originally appeared on NICU Helping Hands.
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