“You never know how strong you are, until being strong is your only choice.” – Bob Marley
Imagine you’re pregnant. You planned out everything perfectly, but then something happens… something unforeseen. Now you are delivering your baby earlier than expected or your baby is sick… a doctor is explaining how your baby will be in the hospital for a while… and your head is spinning from how fast everything changed.
Mother’s Day is always a special occasion… it’s a dedicated time to show love and appreciation to mothers or mother-like figures in our lives. Today, there is a special population we will highlight . . . NICU Moms.
In 2019, about 1 of every 10 babies was born premature (less than 37 weeks) and the overall admission rate to the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU) for any reason (including prematurity) varied from 6-13%. These mothers gain the title of “Mom” but are separated from their child soon after delivery. These moms give birth but cannot take their child home with them due to illness or prematurity and an extended hospital stay in the NICU.
As a neonatologist and a former NICU mom myself (my son was born 6 weeks early and spent about 3 weeks in the NICU), I empathize with the feelings that these women go through… the shock, the frustration, the fear, and the worry. All you want is to ensure that your baby is okay.
This Mother’s Day, I want to let all NICU Moms know, that whatever you’re feeling . . . it’s okay to feel that way. Also know, that even though your baby is in the NICU, there are things you can do for your baby to show love and supportive care. You may not be able to be with your baby 24/7, but your role is no less important.
Below is a list of suggestions for our NICU Moms . . . this is not all-inclusive list, but it is a helpful starting point.
1. Visit when you can
It’s hard to be discharged home without your baby but know that visiting is strongly encouraged. Visitation policies may have changed during the COVID pandemic, but you can still spend time with your baby. Start by asking about the unit’s visitation policy, specifically when and for how long you can visit, and then talk with your partner or support person on how to arrange visiting the hospital as often as possible. If access to reliable or consistent transportation services is a problem, then don’t be afraid to ask if there’s any help available – sometimes a social worker can assist in giving vouchers, parking validation, and other methods of subsidizing traveling costs. Moreover, some hospitals have shuttle systems that are open for community use.
2. Skin-to-Skin or kangaroo care
Skin-to-skin care is a wonderful thing for babies and mothers. It promotes maternal-infant bonding, reduces stress, helps increase maternal breast milk supply, assists the baby in regulating certain body functions, and promotes the growth of your baby. If your baby is too sick for skin- to-skin, then ask your neonatal team the best way you can touch and comfort your baby until skin-to-skin is safe. “Hand hugging” is another form of touch you can do to provide gentle support by placing your hands on the infant’s head and body.
3. Provide breastmilk
Breastmilk is often referred to as “liquid gold.” Medical research has found many benefits to mothers and babies when mothers can provide breastmilk to their child, whether it’s given directly via breastfeeding or expressed and given by some other method. Early establishment of breastfeeding or pumping, ideally within the first 1-2 hours after delivery, is key to jump-starting your breast milk supply. Inquire about lactation support in the hospital for assistance. Some hospitals also offer donor milk for a select population of babies. Donor milk can be given to your baby until your breastmilk becomes available.
4. Ask questions
Some mothers don’t want to be a burden to the medical team by asking too many questions – but at the same time, they want to understand the medical plan for their baby. Do not be afraid to ask about your infant. In fact, I’ve worked with many mothers who have kept a notebook and written down questions and key points of information that are discussed about their baby. When applicable, request a “family meeting” – a meeting where the key members of the medical team sit down with you and periodically review your baby’s medical issues, progress, and future goals. Lastly, there are apps on your phone that can provide information on neonatal issues and give you an outlet to record updates about your baby, keep pictures, etc.
5. Ask about support groups
Friends and family are great assets, but sometimes you may need a different outlet to express your emotions. I strongly recommend that you consider support groups that may be available at the hospital, in the community, or even on a national level. They can give you a different perspective since you will be interacting with other families who may be going through a similar situation. Besides, an extra shoulder to lean on doesn’t hurt.
Having a baby in the NICU can be a long, wearisome, and mentally taxing experience – it takes patience and endurance. For the mother that carries the badge of “NICU Mom” – be proud and share your story. Although your baby may have had a difficult start, you remained a steady source of love and strength – and because the trials may not end after your baby is discharged, it’s important to recognize your role. After all, once a NICU Mom… always a NICU Mom.
On behalf of the Onsite family, we wish everyone a very Happy Mother’s Day!