What I’ll Never Forget About Life in the NICU

I definitely never thought I’d have a baby in the NICU. I guess no one really does. But even if I’d have known, nothing could have prepared me for how different life would look in the first few weeks of our sons life than how I’d always envisioned it.

Bennett was born on a Wednesday evening. He was immediately taken to the NICU on the second floor and I was admitted to the fifth floor to recover from my c-section. I did not see him for about 9 hours after he was born and I did not hold him for over a day. For a first time Mom (or any Mom really), this felt really disorienting and sad.

Ben was admitted for prematurity and respiratory distress. He wound up staying for 14 days because the prematurity came along with some breathing and eating issues. Essentially many late preterm babies (born at 34-36 weeks) have trouble learning to suck, swallow, and breathe at the same time. Once we started bottle feeding and later breastfeeding, he would not remember to breathe while eating and would DSAT or his respiratory rate would drop (or both).

The NICU staff immediately put Ben on a three-hour schedule. At 9am, 12pm, 3pm, 6pm, 9pm, etc. he was changed, vitals were taken, and he’d eat. We stayed on a schedule like this for the entirety of our NICU stay. For the first two days, his only nutrition was from an IV. Once I started pumping, we did mouth care, where we put pumped colostrum on a q-tip and swirled it around his mouth so he got some antibodies and got a taste for milk. On day three we started feeds through his ng-tube so breast milk was added to his tube and it drained down the tube and into his stomach.

For the first four days I was still an inpatient in the same hospital. N was able to stay with me and sleep on a pull out bed in my room. When I was discharged we stayed in a parent room on the same unit for one night. It was essentially a broom closet with a pull out sofa and a non-working TV.

The next day we found out we did not get the parent room for another night (it’s given to a couple based on the need/situation) but I got a Mom room. The Mom room was basically a dorm room that is shared with another Mom. It meant N could not stay with me anymore. These rooms were also given based on need so I had to re-request the room each day. Luckily our hospital really supports breastfeeding Moms so I got it every day after that so I was able to be at every feeding to attempt to breastfeed and then pump.

While I’m grateful that I was given a place to stay for Bennett’s remaining stay in the NICU, I can’t tell you how much I mentally took a nosedive once N couldn’t stay with me. He’d stay for the 9pm feeding and then head home and come back for the 9am the next morning.

Those 12 hours without him were so hard. The nurse even noted one evening after a friend stopped by that when N and my friend were there, I was such a different person. Almost like she got to see a glimpse of who I was outside of the NICU and the experience we were having. It’s not to say I was depressed. I just felt very alone and it’s also when the exhaustion felt the hardest to manage. I’m lucky to have such a supportive, present partner in life and in parenthood. It felt like because he wasn’t allowed to stay with me, that he was less valued. As much as Ben needed me (and essentially, biologically, my body), I needed N.

Ben couldn’t breastfeed immediately. It meant for at least the first several days I was exclusively pumping. That meant that every time I would be feeding Ben, I needed to pump. So every feeding my life looked something like this – N or I would change his diaper. The nurse would do vitals. We’d feed him (what this looked like progressed throughout our stay). Then I’d go to the lactation room and pump.

The night feedings were the hardest because this whole process took about an hour and a half.

So for instance at 2:55am, my alarm would go off (much harder to wake up for than a crying baby, might I add). I’d put on my backpack (full of pump parts and valuables, as the nurse manager said I could not leave my valuables unattended and I was sharing the room with a stranger) and go pick up the phone outside the unit. I’d dial 8786 and the clerk would answer. I’d mumble, “I’m here to feed Bennett” and they’d buzz me in.

I’d step to the sink, wash my hands, and shuffle back to the North nursery. We’d do the changing, vitals, then feed him.

Then I’d be there, holding my baby, bleary eyed at 3:30am or 3:45am. And I had to somehow build up the willpower to put him back in the incubator and go pump. It’s hard to put your teeny baby down, back into an incubator all hooked up to cords and then leave him in someone else’s care. So I’d think about putting him back for a while but instead I’d sit in the chair by his incubator and rub his tiny back and smell his sweet smell.

When I finally put him back in the incubator, I’d go to the lactation room on the unit and pump. Then I’d put a hospital barcode on the milk and label it with the date and time, wash my pump parts, reload them in to my backpack, and take the milk to the nurse. Then I’d stumble back to bed around 4:30am, alarm set for 5:55am to get up for the next feed. I’d sneak quietly into the dark room so as not to wake my roommate.

For me, NICU life felt like I was in a weird time warp. I lived in these weird 3 hour blocks where I only had about 1.5 hours where I wasn’t needed. I joked that in that time I had to do three things: eat, sleep, and maintain personal hygiene. Pick two, because that’s all I could ever manage in those blocks of time. I usually opted for a shower and a walk to the hospital cafeteria. I will say I was terrible about eating during this time and often chose to keep holding Ben and eventually take a quick shower before the next feed. Having N there during the day was so helpful because I really needed someone to remind me to eat or force me to take a nap.

For the first week I struggled with maintaining contact with people in the outside world. I was told that once my hands were washed and I was in the NICU by the incubator, I could not touch my cell phone. That meant that for the hour and a half I was in with Ben, I was getting lots and lots of texts from well-intentioned family and friends. I often spent my time between feedings responding to those texts or calling family or friends to keep them in the loop. But this meant that by the time I needed to head back in for the next feeding, I sometimes hadn’t done any self-care whatsoever.

I realize that all new parents live on a weird schedule like this but I think the hardest part was all the little things that were added because of NICU life. I was basically not allowed to multi-task.

Not sleeping next to my baby and the process of getting to him was just so involved. Hand washing is required every time you entered the unit and by about day 6, my hands were completely brutalized. At one point a nurse, semi-horrified, asked me what was wrong with my knuckles (they were cracked and bleeding from being so dry) and gave me an entire tube of diaper cream to put on them. They hurt and are just now mostly healed.

You also could not eat or drink in the NICU itself. It meant I could not sit with Ben and drink a cup of coffee. I don’t know why but this upset me more than anything else. Like it was the normal thing that I should get to do – hold my baby and drink a cup of coffee, especially after a night that involved no sleep for longer than a 2 hour stretch.

Eventually, I got so sick of the no cell phone rule that I started kind of disregarding it. I sanitized it every time I came in and used plenty of hand sanitizer. Then I could text while Ben slept on me and I got some of that time back that I was spending outside of the unit keeping in contact with family and friends.

My sort of breaking point came when I was alone one day (N had to go in to the office for one day to close up shop and prep for his paternity leave). I was struggling with flying solo and my Mom called. I was holding Ben and I answered the phone. Mind you, there were no other parents around. The nurses were well out of hearing distance at their computers, charting.

I quietly gave my Mom an update but after about two minutes, a nurse came up and tapped me and said “You can’t be on your phone in here, while you’re holding the baby.” It wasn’t the way she said it or the fact that she said it. She had to enforce the rules of the unit and I understand why they have them. But in that moment I just couldn’t keep it in. I got off the phone with my Mom and quietly sobbed.

When the nurse soon realized that her comment had perhaps led me to this breakdown, she brought me some tissues. I explained to her that it wasn’t her, it was just that I wanted to do normal stuff with my baby. This is what I consistently found most upsetting. I just wanted to do normal stuff with Ben around. I didn’t want to have to decide between eating and holding him. And all the rules were just a reminder that I was not really the primary caregiver of my own child. I was not in charge. I was not the decision maker. That’s tough when you’re trying your best to figure out how to be a Mom for the first time.

Since I’ve been home I’ve drunk dozens of cups of coffee while holding Ben. I’ve dropped Thai food on him while I ate over his sleeping body. I’ve accidentally melted crumbles of chocolate between the two of us. And I’ve definitely texted, talked, and facetimed while holding him.

You see, the thing about starting off in the NICU is this – it makes you so appreciate the silly, everyday stuff. Rolling over in bed to lift up my crying baby from the bassinet. Drinking coffee while holding him. I can get so much done between (and during) feeding him because everything I need is right here in my home. I can cuddle him for an hour after I feed him and still manage to shower, eat, and maybe doze off for a few before I need to feed him again. It’s incredible!

I’ve even got so much time back at night. Just rolling over to pick him up and not having to sneak back in to a dorm room with a stranger, using my iPhone flashlight to guide me to a stiff mattress with scratchy hospital sheets. Our regular bed with Target sheets feels so luxurious. Sure, we’re up in the night but I feel exponentially more well-rested. Plus N is there with me, the diaper change champion.

Life at home feels so easy. We appreciate the random little moments more. I’d never wish for a NICU stay but I’m thankful that Ben got incredible care and that we had this experience that has made us so appreciate our life at home.

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