Syona was born one month early. She weighed 4 lbs, 3 oz and had a number of unexpected complications that required a stay in the special care nursery of our local hospital. After eight months of a textbook pregnancy, my husband and I weren’t prepared for these complications. We quickly decided that instead of feeling helpless, we would use this challenge as an opportunity for us to learn as much as we could.
Almost 13 percent of infants in Canada are admitted to a neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) or special care nursery after birth. They are admitted for various reasons: some are born pre-term, others may have a serious medical condition that requires immediate attention, while some babies just need a little extra monitoring.
Whether it happens at birth, in baby’s first year or when your child is 10, a hospital stay could be in your near or distant future. Here are a few tips that we learned that may help you make the best of this extremely stressful and emotional time.
Get to know your new world
- Learn the rules about visiting hours and hygiene procedures.
- Get to know what the various pieces of scary-looking medical equipment are used for so you feel more comfortable.
- Learn the lingo. A lot of complicated jargon and acronyms are used in medicine. Try and learn a little of it so you won’t feel as overwhelmed when speaking with your baby’s healthcare providers. Ask your healthcare provider if you can get a prenatal consult if you know your baby will have to stay in the hospital. This will be with a doctor who will be involved with your baby’s care. Try to arrange a tour of the NICU/special care nursery.
The old adage still rings true: there is no such thing as a stupid question. I kept a running list of questions in a bright orange folder by my side, constantly scribbling them down as I thought of them. Every morning I would have some time to speak with the doctors and nurses to get answers. I’d write them down, which helped me stay organized and also I could refer back to the information later.
“Don’t minimize your role; you are the most important person in your baby’s life – physically and psychologically,” says Dr. Karel O’Brien, staff neonatalogist at Mount Sinai Hospital in Toronto.
- Ask how to participate in your baby’s care.
- Provide breast milk (either through breastfeeding or pumping).
- Bond with your baby through talk and kangaroo care (skin-to-skin contact).
- Help to feed and diaper your baby. Just your presence can have a huge impact for you and your baby. Dr. O’Brien also tells parents not to feel guilty if they are unable, either physically or mentally, to participate in their baby’s care.
Take care of yourself
If you can’t sleep at home without your baby, many hospitals have lounges or rooms available for use. You might actually sleep better in an uncomfortable hospital bed knowing that you are just down the hall from your little one (I did). But don’t feel that you have to live at the hospital just because your baby is there. Take breaks and get outside for some fresh air. If you live close by, go home during the day to freshen up and have a homemade meal.
Let go of any preconceived notions
Things likely didn’t go as smoothly as you had hoped if you have a baby that needs an extended hospital stay. It’s tough to accept that you might not get to hold your baby all the time, or that feeding might not be the most natural process. The quicker you let go of your expectations, the faster you will adapt to the situation and, ultimately, revel in the incredible first moments of your baby’s life.
Laugh and cry openly
Cindy Watson’s 11-year-old daughter Tavie is now a happy kid, but she was born three months early and weighed only one pound. She spent most of her first year in Regina General Hospital’s NICU and had a number of very serious medical issues. “There were so many moments where I would just cry and there were just as many times that I would laugh. It was in my emotional moments that I would connect the most – whether it was with Tavie, her nurses, doctors, or other parents. By opening up I realized I was stronger than I expected.” Feelings of anxiety and fear are normal. Talk to your doctors, nurses, family, friends and especially your partner.
Get on board with team baby
“It’s like a pyramid. The star at the top is your baby. Then come the parents. And then there’s the healthcare team that’s working with you to get your baby home. We’re all working together,” says Rose Cameirao, a nurse at Markham Stouffville Hospital in Markham, Ont. As a parent it’s important to remember that everyone on your baby’s team is working in the best interest of your child, so always communicate openly with your baby’s healthcare providers.
Don’t be afraid to ask for support
Many hospitals have support programs for parents with a baby in the hospital. They can usually provide literature and resources to help you cope, or even connect you with other parents who have gone through a similar situation. Cindy also built her own network. “I felt like I knew every parent who came in to the NICU. We all celebrated when a baby went home. And we all supported each other through the tough moments.”
Ask your friends and family for what you need. Whether it’s a brown bag lunch, a new book or just some company, you’ll get what you need and the people that care about you will be happy to be useful.
Dr. O’Brien says, “Understand you’re not alone. You can use nurses, doctors and other parents as support. Enlist the same support network you would have used if you were able to take your baby home right away.” If you feel overwhelmed, speak to your doctor.
Learn as much as you can
If there’s a positive side to having a child in the hospital, it’s having access to professionals who can share their vast knowledge. Between the doctors, nurses, lactation consultants, nutritionists and social workers, there are plenty of free lessons to be learned. Don’t be shy about asking for advice, demonstrations (like bathing your baby or swaddling) or instructions.
Anchel Krishna is a Toronto-based freelance writer and mother of one. A trained communicator, Anchel now focuses on taking care of her toddler while attempting to string together coherent sentences.