You were expecting to carry your baby to term, but the unexpected happened. Your baby arrived early and has been moved to the neonatal intensive care unit at the hospital. A Valley neonatologist offers insights on what to anticipate—and how to cope—when your baby is in the NICU.
Adjusting to a new normal
When a newborn is in the NICU, parents must brace themselves for the possibility of a long stay, depending on the complexity of their baby’s medical condition. Greg Martin, MD, NICU medical director at Banner University Medical Center and Cardon Children’s Medical Center, and clinical professor of pediatrics at the University of Arizona College of Medicine in Phoenix, recommends parents adjust to what he describes asthe “new normal” when a baby is admitted to the hospital for a prolonged stay.
“It is impossible for parents to be at the bedside 24 hours a day. Each family must define what the new normal looks like for them,” says Martin. He often observes parents setting unrealistic expectations when their baby is ill. “You have no control over what is happening,” he tells them. “The baby is in charge.”
Easing the stress
Something as simple as a notebook can help parents adjust to this stressful situation. Martin encourages parents to jot down questions or information they learn about their baby.
He also strongly recommends that parents identify a physician or nurse with whom they feel comfortable asking questions and discussing problems they might observe with their child. Parents must provide accurate contact information and let the medical team know about schedules so that updates can be delivered in a timely fashion.
If emotions get out of hand during the care of the baby, Martin advises parents to “take a time out and return later to discuss their child’s care.”
Coping with uncertainty is one of the hardest parts of dealing with a child in the NICU. Martin encourages parents to “sleep, eat and even make time for a movie” to ensure there is some normalcy in their lives. It is unrealistic for parents to think they can hold a constant vigil for several weeks or months, he says. When parents take time out to take care of themselves, they are in a better emotional state to support their baby.
Find a support network
Relying on a network of empathetic people is crucial in coping with a prolonged NICU stay. Martin strongly encourages parents to seek out other parents or support groups to talk about problems unique to NICU babies.
Hospitals provide on-site support/therapy and resources to screen moms suffering from post-partum depression. Social workers on staff at the hospital also offer options for individual therapy if either parent seeks additional support.
Create your own boundaries
Well-meaning family and friends want to support you through your baby’s stay at the NICU, but sometimes the stress may leave you with little emotional range to discuss your baby’s health with others. Don’t be afraid to say no if you don’t want visitors or to hesitate sending a phone call to voicemail. It is important to do what is best for you and your baby.