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6 Things I Wish People Understood About Our Short NICU Stay

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Our baby was taken away from us shortly after birth. We weren’t allowed to breastfeed or hold our son for a period of time. In our case (and many others), our son was taken to a different hospital, and I wasn’t able to be with him at all for the first day of his life. 

It was only due to a superb recovery that I was able to spend his second day with him. There were times we couldn’t hold our baby, and we didn’t get to make many decisions about his initial life experience. No matter how long a NICU stay is, we can’t have those hours and days back.

Here are six things I wish people understood about our short NICU stay:

1. Time moves at a different speed in the NICU.

A few months after our son was discharged, I followed another mom through the same journey from a distance. When her daughter was discharged at 20 days, which was twice my son’s stay, I couldn’t believe how fast it had gone.

It may have seemed like our stay was over in the blink of an eye, but it felt so much longer inside those walls. In my mind, those 10 days took as long as his entire first several months.

2. There is rarely no such thing as a healthy baby in the NICU.

No matter when a baby is born, they are in the NICU for a reason. There are full-term babies and micro preemies and literally everything in between. Some babies face challenges in one particular area — respiratory, feeding, infection, etc. — while others face challenges across many areas. 

Age is not a reliable predictor of what type of challenges a baby may have. There are babies who were younger than mine with fewer issues and those who were older and had more. The fact that your cousin’s baby was born the same gestation as mine and was healthy doesn’t mean my son didn’t really need to be there. It wasn’t just a precaution; he was there because he needed help.

3. I really did everything I could to breastfeed.

During my first few days in the NICU, I couldn’t believe how accepting and encouraging the nurses were of whatever I was able to provide. It felt like so little, and as the days went by, we were still counting in milliliters. I was horribly discouraged, and it was the nurses who celebrated every drop with me.

When our son showed absolutely no interest in breastfeeding, I had to make a choice between bottles or breastfeeding that included staying or going home. I chose to go home. For more than two months, we struggled to establish breastfeeding, and when we finally did, it was short-lived due to complications with reflux and growth. Part time or not at all was my choice, and while I wish it had been different, I don’t blame anyone that it wasn’t.

4. Short-term stays can result in long-term challenges.

Just because we came home after a relatively short stay, doesn’t mean we came home without complications. Feeding was a work in progress even at discharge, and breastfeeding didn’t come at all for weeks later. Growing was hard for my preemie, and he still faces challenges with severe reflux that compounds all of it.  

At six months old, he sometimes chokes so hard on his own spit that I have unbuckled him from his stroller to pick him up quickly to help him clear his airway. His development has been slow and steady, but he doesn’t look or act like other babies his age. He was relatively healthy for his age, but he has catching up to do and that will take time.

Even babies with short NICU stays can come home with challenges that need to be looked after for a longer period of time, and they may remain susceptible to additional illnesses in their first months and years.

5. We know other NICU families have mixed feelings about our short stay.

Seeing babies come in and be discharged before your baby can be hard. Seeing babies younger than yours come in for a few hours of observation or quickly discharged can be hard, too. You saw us come and you saw us go, but you had to stay.

I want NICU moms with longer stays to know that I understand my experience wasn’t what yours was, regardless of any challenges we’re still having. I’m also happy to lend you an ear or a shoulder if you need it because I’ve been there enough to not want to be there a moment longer than need be and every moment seems to take forever.

6. Our hearts ache for the families we left behind.

We think about the babies we left behind regularly. I remember their names and their faces. I remember their parents. I have no idea if any of those people will remember me, but I remember them. The same goes for the nurses and doctors. 

In the grand scheme of things, our stay in the NICU was short, but all of the people there made a lifetime impact on me.

Follow this journey on Work and Play, Day by Day.

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Originally published: June 17, 2016
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