The NICU was a foreign place to me. I place I never thought I would venture to and never thought twice about prior to the birth of Mason. I understood what it was but it did not factor into my life in any way. When I was told that the NICU team was waiting for my babies arrival at the during the delivery, I just figured they were going to check him out, tell me he was ok, then go on their way. I had no idea that my sweet baby would be whisked away from me to another floor of the hospital minutes after he was born. The crazy part is that my husband went with the baby to the NICU and after 12 hours of labor I was left alone in room, uncontrollably crying due the shock of just giving birth.
The First Visit to the NICU:
For about 2 hours I keep asking every nurse I see, "when can I see my baby" and I keep being told "we will let you know". Looking back I feel like I did not ask enough and maybe could have seen him sooner (part of the constant mom guilt that I feel almost constantly these days). My husband and I are given bracelets to wear throughout his NICU stay to identify us when we go to visit him. When I finally make it to the NICU floor, we head to reception where they call back and say "Vanderslice Mom is here" words I will hear over and over again for the next two weeks, and we are told to head back to his pod. Past the large coolers and metal racks of plastic bottles, shelves filled with books, to his pod. We are asked to wash our hands each time we enter then are taken over to his crib. Covered in tubes and IV cords, I burst into tears - he is the most beautiful little boy I have ever seen. He is cute as a button and sleeping soundly, but I am immediately destroyed as a mother that this is what his first hours of life will entail and I am unable to hold back tears.
They ask if I want to hold him and I look at them like I didn't know that I was able to. After careful preparation and some wrapping of cords - he is in my arms and he is so beautiful. My heart feels the heaviness (that I have now grown accustom to), a heaviness I only feel when he is in my arms that I still feel today. Its like my heart is so full it can't handle anymore love and it takes up my entire chest.
Your Role as a Parent:
Once he is back in his crib they tell us that he eats every 3 hours through a tube and that we should come at those times to change his diaper and hold him while he eats. And then we are gone, back through the doors, to our hospital room. The hospital room is like a bad hotel when your baby is in the NICU. You just sit and watch TV and eat terrible food. Each nurse comes in (already knowing you have a NICU baby by the symbol outside the door) and asks how baby is doing, hands you some pills, checks on a few things, then moves on. Not much else to do without a baby in the room I guess.
We head down to the NICU again at 3pm for his feeding, wash our hands, and the nurse says we can help change his diaper. With quivering hands, we manage to put the world's smallest diaper on the world's most adorable baby. We feel accomplished, we feel like he is our baby, we come to LOVE changing his diapers (and to this day still do) it is something that we cherished in his first days of life - one of the only ways we truly could do to take care of him.
He slept with this gel noodle wrapped around him to help recreate the feeling of being in the womb. The noodle had a light tan cover zipped onto it and I will never forget when the nurse handed me a white "personal belongings" bag that held the noodle cover and told me to wash it at home. I walked right through the door that night and straight to the laundry room. I washed it all by itself, on gentle of course, and promptly put it in the dryer to get it back to the hospital the next day. It was the most important laundry load I had ever done. And I truly felt like a mom that day, doing laundry for my baby.
What I didn't know until a few days into his stay, is that you can bring things to the NICU to make your babies crib feel more like home. Blankets to line the crib and swaddle him, hats for him to wear, onesies once they are off of the IV, and the most important thing - a Boppy with a soft cover, as that is how you will hold them and teach them to Breastfeed.
Home without your Baby:
Leaving the hospital without Mason was the hardest part. I wanted to be like the other mothers in the wheelchairs with the carseats and their babies, heading home, face filled with fear. I still had to be in a wheel chair, but no baby, so they brought me to the door, then I stood up and walked right to the car, and went home. It was a surreal moment, walking through that door to our house. Something huge was missing from our lives, we walked around like zombies. Barely eating, barely sleeping, and even the most mundane tasks, seemed to be too much. Our only thoughts were of Mason. I found comfort in preparing for him to come home and being out the house. A house without him, was not a home. Within about a 1/2 hour of being home, I was back in the car to the hospital, there was nowhere else I would rather be at that moment.
Your NICU Team:
In the NICU you have a day nurse and a night nurse assigned to your baby then a Doctor who comes around once or twice a day. If you are not there when the Doctor comes around (they are very hard to catch) they will call you and give you an update on the baby. They are trained to be extremely vague, any false hope given to the parents can be catastrophic. And as a parent, you forget every question you had once you get them on the phone or meet with them in person (so always write them down) and you definitely feel like your life is in their hands, and you have no input whatsoever. Every day the news is that he is doing better, coming off of more tubes, he just needs to be able to eat on his own to go home.
48 hours without a Feeding Tube:
A few days after Mason is born, there is no longer anything medically wrong with him, they just need to keep him until he is without a feeding tube for 48 hours and they recommend he goes home breastfeeding and not on bottles of breast milk.
For five out of his eight feedings a day, I show up at the hospital and try to get him to breastfeed, he latches on, but quickly falls asleep (he sleeps about 23 1/2 hours a day at this point in his life). I keep thinking this is crazy, I can get him to eat, just let me bring him home - we will be fine. Instead I am in a cold hospital NICU, in a cold hospital chair, surrounded by the sounds of people and hospital machines, separated by a thick hospital curtain, trying to breastfeed for the first time in my life. It is by far one of the last places I would want to learn how to breastfeed let alone spend my first days with my newborn, but we keep trying.
Bottles of Breastmilk:
Then a nurse asks if he has had a bottle yet (which he has not) and she says she will try at his next feeding. He can go home on bottles then learn to breastfeed at home. All I can think is, it only matters to me is that he gets home. I am currently pumping every 3 hours into the regulation plastic bottles, labeling each bottle, and dropping the milk off into the large coolers at the entrance to the NICU. Every last drop of food Mason is eating, comes from me. We are told he will get better and go home faster on breast milk - so I pump constantly with my only thoughts of bringing him home.
My little man does great on the bottle and away we go, all hope is restored. After being told he would be there for 4-6 weeks, we hear nurses say he could go home next week.
The hardest part of being in the NICU is not knowing when he will go home and incessantly asking every nurse and Doctor when they think he will go home and then each and every one of them having a different answer - it messes with your head to the point of a breakdown. I had multiple breakdowns in my car in the hospital parking lot where I could not stop crying.
So after 24 hours on the bottle they remove the feeding tube and I see for the first time, my little boy's entire face without a single tube and I burst into tears. "Mr. Perfect" I call him, he is just that, incredibly perfect. He does great for a few more feedings with the bottle and even through the next day. I remember going home during the one of the feedings and taking a break to start getting things ready for his arrival home. When I come back for the following feeding, the tube is back and I am met with the news that he wouldn't take the whole bottle so they had to "tube him" again.
I am devastated, destroyed, all hope is lost. How could they do this to me? Did they try hard enough? Was the nurse too busy with another baby and did not have the time to give him his bottle? It was currently taking him close to an hour to eat 32ml so it was quite a task for anyone to sit there and feed him - were they not being patient with him? At this point, I completely broke down.
I decide right then and there that if he needs to eat from a bottle for 48 hours to go home, than for 48 hours I will personally be feeding him each bottle. My husband gave me the "oh my god she has lost it" look and I stormed off and packed a bag for my hospital stay.
Mason is finally moved to the non-emergency NICU floor which is more like a hotel where each baby has their own room and parents can pretty much come and go as they please. Trying to breastfeed on this new floor is a dream, it is the next best thing to being at home. I camp out for 48 hours in his new room and feed him every single drop of breastmilk through breast or a bottle for all 16 feedings until he can come home. I would have done it for as long as it took, he was my baby, and home is where he belonged.
To the Nurses of the NICU:
Thank you. Thank you for all that you do. Thank you for putting up with the parents (which may be your hardest job at times) and giving your undying love and care to the helpless babies of the NICU. When a new parent walks in, tell them what they can do to support their child, tell them multiple times since they are in such a state of shock they probably did not hear you. Tell them what they can bring in and do to make their babies stay more comfortable. Tell them when they can hold their babies and for how long, if we had it our way we would never put them down. Walk them through the first and even second diaper change so they feel like one thing is going right in their day. Tell them to keep trying when breastfeeding seems impossible, tell them that the baby will learn to latch on and eat as they grow. Tell them they can start on bottles of breastmilk and learn to breastfeed at home. Tell them that they are doing an amazing job. More than anything, talk to them. You are the most important person next to their baby in their life at that moment. We want to know everything about our baby when we are not there, and everything we can do to get them home. And again, thank you, from the bottom of my heart, thank you.