There is truth to the saying, “Not all superheroes wear capes.” To the parents of babies in the neonatal intensive care unit, the NICU nurses are true scrubs-wearing heroes. Because neonatal nurses know so much about premature babies, we turned to them for their expertise and their answers to the all-important question: What should new parents of babies who spend time in the NICU know about the journey ahead? In partnership with the March of Dimes, we bring you some of the very best tips and words of wisdom from NICU nurses at hospitals around the country:
1. Don’t Nod And Pretend To Understand.
In the NICU, strange words and abbreviations are everywhere (the acronym “NICU” being one of them). Kacy B., a neonatal nurse practitioner in Oregon, says don’t be afraid to speak up and ask questions when something you’re told is unclear. “You are your baby’s voice and advocate,” Kacy says. “Don’t be afraid to stop your provider and bring them back to your level of comfort until you fully understand what’s being discussed.”
2. Look Beyond The Wires And Tubes.
At first it may be difficult to see beyond the incubators, ventilators, monitors and tubes, but you will, says Rosanna M., who has worked for more than two decades as a neonatal nurse. “A NICU is a scary place, but it is also a place of great hope, miracles and love,” Rosanna says. “Focus on that when things seem overwhelming.”
3. Take Care Of Yourself.
Because a NICU stay can be more marathon than sprint, it is so important that mothers and fathers practice good self care. Almost every nurse with whom we spoke emphasize the importance of eating well, making sleep a priority and spending time away from the hospital. Kacy B.’s advice sums it up: “Taking care of yourself when your baby is with us is the most important way you can take care of your baby.”
4. Get To Know Other Parents.
Although every family’s experience of the NICU is unique, other parents who are going through similar stuff may be a great source of support. “Try to form a connection to other parents in the unit,” says Rosanna M. “While the nurses cannot discuss your baby’s condition with anyone, you are free to discuss it. I have seen some incredible bonds formed in our unit that continued long after discharge.”
5. Let People Help You.
You can’t do it all alone – and you shouldn’t have to. When someone reaches out to help you, let them. When someone asks what they can do, tell them. Katie K., a neonatal nurse, suggests allowing friends and family to cook meals, babysit older siblings, provide transportation, relay information on your behalf, or help collect donations on your behalf if you need extra financial assistance due to missed work and medical expenses.
6. Remember: This Is Your Child.
When your baby is vulnerable and surrounded by a team of experts, it can be easy to feel like you are in the way. But the nurses with whom we spoke say it is vital for you to know that you’re the most important person in your baby’s life. “You’re not in our way,” says Darcie S., who has been a neonatal nurse in Chicago for more than 25 years. “This is your child. And we are honored to help take care of your baby. But stay with us and watch or help do what you can.”
7. Know That Every Baby Is Different.
While it’s natural to compare your baby with others around him or her, it may not be helpful for you. It can cause you unnecessary stress and worry, because every milestone and outcome is unique. “Every baby is different,” says neonatal nurse Kristie M. “Don’t compare your baby with others in the NICU or from a blog somebody wrote.”
8. Expect To Feel A Range Of Emotions.
The nurses we spoke with point out that the NICU experience can have a lot of ups and downs – there are likely to be great moments followed by setbacks – and your emotions will follow suit. “It’s common to have a range of emotions,” says Karrie M., a NICU nurse, “like scared of the unknown, angry when things don’t go the way you expected, jealous of babies around you going home and, of course, happy when the good days come.”
9. Stay In Touch.
“One of the best parts of our job is watching your baby get bigger and stronger – and watching you take over the care of your baby to the point that you don’t need us,” says Darcie S. After babies go home, the NICU staff “love to see pictures and get visits as the years go by,” Darcie adds. “It means that our work was meaningful.”
The March of Dimes is the leading nonprofit organization for pregnancy and baby health. For more than 75 years, parents and babies have benefited from March of Dimes research, education, vaccines and breakthroughs. Connect with us on our website to learn more about our new Give them tomorrow campaign, which unites the efforts of the March of Dimes, corporations, organizations and individuals to generate awareness and funding to fight birth defects and premature birth.