November is Prematurity Awareness Month, which is why I decided the timing was ripe for me to document my own experience as a NICU parent. For those of you who aren't familiar with the term NICU, it's also known as the neonatal intensive care unit. My son was born a little over 2 years ago at 34 ½ weeks, 5 ½ weeks before his due date. Although he was considered healthy at over 5 pounds, he spent roughly ten days in the NICU. Since then, I've spent a lot of internal energy denying this reality; I wanted to forget about the experience because forgetting seemed like the best way to cope with what I perceived to be my failed pregnancy. I felt I failed my family and most importantly, my son. I wanted more than anything to have a clinically healthy, full term pregnancy. Paradoxically, I myself was born at 36 weeks and spent one week in the NICU. This was supposed to make me feel better. After all, I turned out okay. But no matter how many times I tried to tell myself I had not failed, that it was probably genetic in my case, and that my son would be okay, I still felt I, or my body, had failed in some way.
I vividly remember my son's birth. The experience was emotionally confusing. I wasn't sure if I should be happy at the birth of my first-born son, or whether I should be terrified that I was going into labor 5 ½ weeks early. Part of me wanted to shout with joy, while the other part of me wanted to scream with rage. At only 34 ½ weeks gestation, I feared my son's health could be compromised. I knew the risk of having a premature baby included undeveloped lungs, which would ultimately mean respiratory problems. My husband, along with a team of nurses and doctors, hovered around me with bated breath as my son traveled down the birth canal. After a relatively quick delivery, I heard a beautiful, soft cry. I sighed with relief as I watched him take his first breath. And then, my body collapsed, utterly exhausted. All I wanted to do was hold my son close, keep him safe, and fall into a restful sleep together, but that didn't happen. I held him for only a few minutes before he was whisked away to the NICU.
I had no time to process what had happened. I didn't know where he was going. I wondered if he would be safe. I was jealous that someone other than me would be taking care of him. Almost immediately, the nursing staff gently nudged me to start pumping my breasts for milk. I was told the staff would take the pumped milk to my son in the NICU, where he would be fed through a tube. While we were thankful that my son was breathing normally, I was crushed that he could not suck and swallow at the same time. That meant I could not breastfeed him, something I had planned to do during my entire pregnancy. Instead, my son would have to be fed through a tube until he could learn to suck and swallow. I know that breast-milk is a very important source of infant nutrition, especially for premature babies so I felt I had no choice but to start pumping. If I could give him my milk, I felt I was doing something to help him. Consequently, I started pumping, but there was no time to rest.
After a few days, I was discharged from the hospital, but my son remained in the NICU. And, while I knew my son was getting excellent care by a team of special neonatal nurses, I wanted him home with me. Leaving the hospital without him was incredibly difficult. Thankfully, I lived just a few blocks from the hospital so it was relatively easy for me to visit him each day for the next week. I pumped every few hours, and then walked the milk over to the hospital. By this time, he had learned to suck and swallow simultaneously so he was drinking my milk out of a bottle, but I still couldn't breastfeed him, which made me very sad.
Being a parent in the NICU was terrifying. My son slept peacefully in an incubator, but I felt an incredible amount of distance between us. I could only touch him with sanitized hands through a small round slot. Later he was transferred to a regular infant bed where I felt much closer to him, but it was still difficult to watch. All around him, alarms were going off. Sometimes the monitor could not read his pulse because it had simply slipped off, causing a sort of false alarm alert. Other times, the alerts were meant for babies in far worse circumstances. Finally, after what seemed like an eternity, the hospital staff allowed my son to go home with us. We embraced parenthood as any other parent would, and eventually, I was successful in breastfeeding after hiring a lactation consultant who visited me at home. While our son is now a healthy, well-adjusted 2-year old, we'll never forget our time with him in the NICU.
I was lucky because I was privileged. I had left my career as a lawyer to start a family, which meant I didn't have to work during my pregnancy, and I didn't have to work after my son was born. I could devote all of my time to him while he was in the NICU. I fed him. I bathed him. I held him close during kangaroo time. I was there for him, body, mind and soul. For many parents with children in the NICU, however, that is not the case. Many premature infants spend weeks or even months in the NICU. For some parents, taking extended amounts of time off from work to visit a child in the NICU is not an option. Additionally, traveling to and from the hospital to visit the NICU can be physically and emotionally exhausting. Most people don't live a few blocks from the hospital like I did. Many parents travel considerable distance. Additionally, it should come as no surprise that NICU moms can develop PTSD from the stressful experience, and are more susceptible to perinatal mood and anxiety disorders.
In closing, and as we take time to cultivate gratitude for the things that matter most this time of year, I'd like to say thank you to all those who supported my family during this stressful time, including NICU hospital staff, my OBGYN, friends and family. We're incredibly thankful our son is a happy, healthy boy. In honor of Prematurity Awareness Month, I'd also like to ask readers to consider the lives of others, especially those less fortunate. It's not easy to be the parent of a premature or NICU infant. Our community could offer a lot more protection, assistance and support for those who struggle with these traumatic, and sometimes life threatening situations.