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  • Writer's pictureApril Rowe

Riding the NICU Rollercoaster: 5 Things to Expect

Updated: Aug 2, 2022

You have probably been anticipating your baby's arrival since the moment you learned you were pregnant. There is so much hoping, dreaming and planning when you are expecting a child. No one wishes or dreams that their baby ends up in the NICU. Once you are told that your baby is heading to the NICU, everything you've planned for gets thrown by the wayside. Alas, you step onboard the NICU rollercoaster.

5 Things to Expect When Your Baby Goes to the NICU

  • You will feel grief. You will grieve the loss of your expected pregnancy outcomes. You hoped to carry your baby to term, have an uncomplicated labor and a beautiful delivery. You planned to hold and breastfeed your baby right away, put them in their adorable outfit you picked out and leave the hospital a couple days later WITH your baby. You are now forced to go home and leave your baby behind. It is a gut-wrenching feeling and you now have to accept the reality.

  • You will likely have feelings of guilt. Almost every parent asks themselves what they could have done differently or what they did not do correctly. Those feelings of guilt come quickly and can linger for months to years after your NICU experience. This is normal and you are not alone! It is important to accept that these feelings are perfectly normal and common. Remind yourself that 10-15% of babies born get admitted to the NICU for varying reasons.

  • The NICU is stressful. The reason the NICU is considered a rollercoaster is because it’s not just a daily dose of stressful ups and downs. Things can change drastically within an hour, and even worse, within a minute. The amount of stress endured will vary for each family, and it depends on your baby’s particular situation. A baby born prematurely at 23 weeks gestation will have complications that differ from a baby born at 34 weeks. Each day is different. NICU babies have good days and bad days. Just take one day at a time.

  • You will feel like you have lost all control. It is very difficult to have to ask to hold or even touch your child. The NICU often revolves around schedules. When you can assist with diaper changes, when you can hold or kangaroo them and when you can feed them all revolve around your baby’s schedule. The NICU runs a tight ship, but it is for a good reason. Sleep is essential for growth! Allowing your baby to sleep deeply between diaper changes and feedings is vital. The more they sleep, the more they grow. Repeat that to yourself if you ask to hold your baby and the nurse tells you it’s not quite time yet.

  • Having patience is important. One of the most frustrating parts of the NICU is when your baby needs to reach full feedings to be considered ready for discharge. Many of them require being gavage fed. This is when a gastric tube is placed down their nose or mouth, ending in the stomach. It allows babies to receive their required daily nutrients and calories to grow and gain weight. Bottle feeding and breastfeeding can be very difficult for babies in the NICU. The energy required for a premature/sick baby to suck, swallow and breath in order to safely and effectively feed can be compared to an adult running a marathon. It is exhausting for them! Try to be patient and realize that your baby is doing its best. Remember, there will be good days and bad days. One of those days, you will be taking your baby home with you!

Whether your time in the NICU is short or months long, your feelings are valid. The stresses are real. It is an exhausting experience. Be grateful for each new day and every milestone. Reach out to family and friends for help. You need support, you need to vent and you need to rest. Remember that you first need to take care of yourself in order to take care of someone else. Take lots of pictures. Keep a journal. Let your NICU team know when you feel like you're falling apart. They are there to support you and help you get through the NICU rollercoaster ride!

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