Five things I learned being a NICU Mom

It isn’t about waiting for the storm to pass but knowing how to dance in the rain!

You probably read the previous two articles I wrote during the time my son Aiden was staying in the NICU. It has been almost two months since he came home. Like all other parents, we jumped straight into the routine without any help from our families. There is no more help from the nurses and doctors and by the rule of thumb, we are sleep deprived. Yet it still feels *so* good to be in the comfort of home.

Our journey had a rough start. However, we are so grateful to have so many people help us along the way, the endless word of encouragement and support, the food and flowers magically appeared at our doorsteps, and some even shared their own experience of having a preemie or being a preemie themselves. We felt deeply touched and loved!

Aiden on day 5 in the NICU

What I would like to share today are the 5 things I learned along the journey. These are my experiences and what helped me greatly. They might be very different from others. With this, I hope to raise awareness if you ever find yourself in the same situation or knowing someone who is.

1. Reach out to give endless words of encouragement and support — do this often or every day

It gives great comfort to hear from family and friends in time of distress. It is even better when they can check in on you often or every day to see how you are doing. People are often worried that might be too excessive. The thing is if everyone thinks like that, no one ends up checking up on the person. There are many ways you can do it without disturbing them. Visiting them every day would cause them hassle. However, things like sending a message to let them know you are thinking about them, to ask if they need anything or just simple how they are feeling and let them know you are always there to listen if they need someone to talk to. Those are comfort without creating overhead. Trust me, for situations like this, doing that helps a lot. Also, check in *often* and not just one time. Whatever the family is going through, it can be a lengthy and stressful journey. For NICU baby, short stays are a few days or weeks, long stays are a few months; some stays for 10+ months. People often receive an overwhelming support at the start, but it often dies down as time goes by. The constant level of support brings warmth to the family and make them feel less alone. Even if they can’t answer or reply your message, they know someone is thinking about them and that gives great comfort.

2. Give help, don’t just offer help!

Many people will step forward and offer help of many kinds. While some parents knows exactly what they need help with, some are just too occupied with the treatment of their babies or often they are still under shocked. They don’t know what help they need. In some other cases, they don’t know how to accept help. It will be something they learn as part of this journey. This gets mentioned in every single book on preemie for new NICU parents. So, help them before they even know they need help!

You can think of the common necessity you would want if you were in their shoes. Food and grocery runs are always good. If they don’t know what they want to eat, bring what you know they like or bringing your favorite dishes. Any food is better than hospital food or better than instant noodle or fast food or no food. Supplies for moms are helpful, especially from experienced moms. I appreciate so much those who brought me nursing and pumping supplies. Since the baby came 3 months earlier than expected, I haven’t had a chance to researched into those things nor knew what to expect. The second or third night after delivery, I woke up at home in excruciating pain and it’s not because of the cesarean section. I learned something new, it was breast engorgement when the milk came in and you don’t have a baby there to eat. Those without kids, imagine your breasts like two big rocks, tight and hard, and feeling like there is a knife stabbing them. Luckily my friends with kids were there to the rescue! And even luckier, some of them dropped off breast therapy pillow (I didn’t know such thing exists), nipple soother gel & cream, … the next day! It’s the best feeling to know you are taken care of!

3. Don’t judge, in any shape or form

The truth is you unknowingly or unintentionally maybe judging the already distressed parents for what happens. I was surprised at how often that happened to me. During our stay in the NICU, while we received so many encouragements and supports, some of them didn’t come in the form we wished to hear. I had people told me outright how my traveling probably caused the early labor and hence I should learn that lesson for my next kid. Some others told me it must be my carelessness working late into the night or letting work stress affected me that must have caused the whole situation. None of these “judges” is a medical professional, none of them knew the exact conditions of what caused it or what happened to me in medical terms. Both my OB and the doctors insisted that traveling wasn’t the cause and didn’t need to be avoided. Many people work and have related work stress, but work is not labeled as the cause for premature labor. What saddens me is that these friends didn’t have the trust that I was doing everything I can to take care of my body during my pregnancy. Given the distressed position the mother was already in, why would you want to put guilts on her when she knows absolutely she has done everything she could for herself and her baby. Premature labor sometimes happens for no absolutely reason. I later followed some preemie groups and encountered so many moms posting questions on feeling guilty of that they might have done something to cause it even when the doctor gave no reason for why it happens and insisted it is nothing that they did. Sometimes, it just happens and naturally our bodies do the best it can to protect the baby and hence premature labor. I have had a normal pregnancy, only with lower back pain which my OB repeatedly told me it was normal.

Bottom line, if the medical professionals don’t have an answer, please don’t try to give some yourself. Instead of judgement, give pure love and strictly love only. Because you know what? All the moms probably already judge themselves so hard for what happened even though it’s not their fault and the last thing they want to/should hear is ‘you have done something wrong to cause this’ or ‘you could have done something different to prevent this …’ In this situation, if you truly care about your friend or loved ones, the only thing you should do is to give them unconditional love, kindness, attention and support!

4. Give them company, especially when the baby isn’t home yet

When I searched for articles and blogs on dealing with emotions after delivery, loneliness and isolation are among the most common feelings that every single mother has. Unless you have families staying long period of time to help, you are on your own. Your husband is still working. Day ins and days out, it is you and the baby around the clock, feeding, changing diaper, soothing him to sleep, pumping and somewhere in between take care of your primary needs such as bathroom break, eating food, and if you are lucky, cook, clean, etc… If you have a fussy baby who constantly cries, you’d understand why they say, ‘have help so you can stay sane’. Taking care of a baby around the clock for a few months just on your own, you start craving social interaction, going out door, talking to adult, catching up on things happening outside of the baby’s nursery… None of these are different from full term babies, but remember there is still the aftershock for everything preemie parents have just went through. It is a trauma that may take months or even years for them to process. It’s also worse with preemies since the doctor would warn the parents to stay clear of crowded places until the baby is a few months or much older. They are more receptive to germs and get sick much easier. Something might cause a cold or flu to a full term could be lethal to preemies. The worst thing is no matter how much you hate repeating this (that preemies are more receptive to germs and sickness) to people, you must. People may [and often] think you are overprotective and judge you. The truth is, they don’t know you wish you didn’t have to take those extra precaution!

5. Keep reaching out, even when you think they are out of the wood

Like I mentioned earlier, loneliness and isolation are real after baby comes. Of course, you want to respect privacy and their bonding time, it never hurts to ask when you can visit and if you can help. I bet you chances are they might need as much help and attention after the baby comes home, as much as the time they were in the NICU.

I was truly fortunate to have a few friends coming over the week right after. Some brought over homemade food, some even brought prepared dishes and cooked there for us so it’s hot and steamy. We didn’t have to do a thing nor clean up. It felt so nice to have the company, and the comfort of homemade meal right at home.

Aiden 3 months 18 days gestational age (3 weeks corrected age)