Five Tips for Surviving the NICU Rollercoaster

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Editor’s Note: This article is in partnership with UAB. It was written by Alisha Congress, DO, a family medicine physician at the Bessemer, Ala. Live Well Family Medicine clinic at Medical West Health Center, an affiliate of UAB Health System. Her son Langston spent five months in the UAB Regional Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU).

Having a child who needs care in a neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) is not something for which you can prepare yourself. You experience a plethora of emotions, often in the same day. Not only is there the physical stress of having brought forth life, but there is also the emotional and psychological turmoil that ensues afterward.

A NICU can be a scary place, and the NICU journey often is long and tumultuous. Therefore, it is so important for the parents to take time to process their emotions and try to approach the journey in the healthiest manner possible. Below are five tips for navigating the NICU experience, focusing on some of the things that stood out to me the most:

Accept help

Having a baby in the NICU can mean a long road ahead, so pace yourself and learn to accept help. Many mothers have a “superwoman complex” from which we need to free ourselves, especially with a child in the NICU. We cannot do it all and should not have to. Many of us have wonderful support systems that can help us carry the load, but pride and other instincts condition us to reject that assistance. So, when your family, friends, church members, or sorority sisters offer help, accept it.

Get involved

I remember feeling so helpless when my son, Langston, was born and needed care in a NICU. As a physician, I had helped save many lives, yet there I was, unable to care for my baby. I did not feel like a good mother; honestly, I did not feel like a mother at all. One thing that helped me was getting involved. I asked the NICU staff to allow me to help care for my son, to the extent that it didn’t go against hospital policy. I changed his diapers, checked his temperature, weighed him, measured his output, gave him baths, and picked out his clothes for the day, to name just a few things. I was a working mother, so I had to miss the morning rounds in the NICU, but I was there for evening rounds and made sure to have my questions ready. Act as a partner in making decisions regarding your baby’s care when possible. It was so empowering to be treated like one of the team.

Take time for yourself/your partner

I remember the overwhelming sense of guilt I felt every time I left the hospital. I felt torn and disappointed that I could not do more. I am forever grateful to the amazing nurses at the UAB Women & Infants Center for encouraging me to take time for me. It’s okay to step away. Do not move into the NICU; boundaries are important. Take time to eat, rest, have coffee with a friend, or get a pedicure or massage, because these things are essential for overall well-being. I quickly realized that I needed to take care of me in order to help take care of my son. Self-care is a must. Also, the stress of a NICU can wreak havoc on relationships and marriages, so it is important to spend quality time with your partner. Several months into our journey, we finally decided to leave the NICU a little early and go out to dinner together. It was so refreshing to just breathe and reconnect.

Record your feelings

In the beginning, it is difficult to see your child in such a vulnerable state, but remember that it is part of his/her journey. It all goes so fast, and there are so many emotions to process. Something that worked for me was keeping a journal. It felt great to put my feelings to paper during the times I was not ready to say certain things aloud. I kept my journal, wrote my son letters, and took thousands of pictures during our 152-day stay in the NICU. Now, over two years since discharge, it is such a blessing to re-read these writings and reflect.

Extend yourself some grace

Having a child who requires NICU care, be it for prematurity or some other reason, can cause you to question everything. I remember wondering what I did wrong or if there was anything I could have done differently. It is a difficult and emotional time, but please, whatever you do, extend yourself some grace. Know that you were created to be your child’s mommy. Know that YOU ARE ENOUGH.

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Jenny-Lyn was born in Decatur, grew up in Ohio, and moved to Birmingham as a teenager. Her favorite things about Birmingham include sweet tea, the use of Sir and Ma’am, and the way people offer friendly smiles while out and about. Oh, and the food. Jenny’s background is sales and marketing, each of which she enjoys putting to use behind the scenes with Birmingham Mom Collective. After getting married, Jenny moved from Birmingham to Minneapolis where she invites anyone interested to visit around August. She’s strongly connected to Birmingham through friends, family, and of course Birmingham Mom Collective. Jenny and her husband Soo-Young have two sons, Michael and Jonathan. She guesses she’s officially a boy mom, and that’s a pretty good thing to be in her book.