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The 8 things I wish I knew when my baby was admitted to the NICU.

I found out I was pregnant with my first baby during Sydney’s 2021 lockdown. The days were short, the evenings were long, the isolation was boring, and the nausea was a nightmare. 

The one thing that kept me going was the planning: for my birth, yes, but mostly for my baby, and those incredible first few weeks when we finally got to meet him and bring him home. 

During that lockdown, we bought our first home, complete with a second bedroom with a big skylight that felt like a nursery the moment I walked in. 

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There, I thought, under that skylight, is where I’ll sit with him when he comes home from the hospital. That’ll be the payoff: nine long months of pregnancy, so I can bring him into this room and stare at him all day in the sunshine. 

Well, you know what they say about plans and making God laugh. 

Nine long months? We barely made it to seven. 

Following a diagnosis of early onset preeclampsia, my son, Max, was born by emergency c-section at 32 weeks. 

I knew, as I was wheeled into the operating theatre, that we wouldn’t be bringing him home to the room we’d so carefully prepared for his arrival. 

I knew he’d be taken straight to the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit, or the NICU, and that I likely wouldn’t have a chance to see him – and certainly wouldn’t be able to hold him – before he was whisked away. 

What I didn’t know – what I tried, through tears and frantic Googling, desperately to work out – was what that meant. 

Whether your baby was planned or unplanned, if you’re anything like me, you’ve been imagining bringing your baby home since the first time you saw that second line on that stick. The realisation that won’t be happening is an absolute gut-punch. 

I can’t take away that pain (although, of course, I wish I could), but I hope I can make the transition a little less jarring by sharing a few of the things I wish I’d been told before I was wheeled in to see Max in his humidicrib for the first time. 

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1. Your baby is receiving exceptional care. 

I want to get this out of the way first, because it is the most important point. If your baby is admitted to an Australian hospital, then they are receiving world-class (and in most cases, entirely free) healthcare. 

Although it doesn’t always feel this way, your baby is in exactly the right place for them right now, and that is, really, the only thing that matters. 

They say it takes a village to raise a child, and while most new parents find themselves going it alone in the first few weeks of their babies' lives, your baby really is being raised by a team. You didn’t get to choose the village, but the good news is, they are unbelievable. 

NICU doctors and nurses are among the most compassionate and capable health professionals in the country. They genuinely love what they do, and they will care for your baby like their own when you can’t be there with them. 

It’s okay to worry about your baby when you can’t see them, but having witnessed firsthand the attention, expertise and care that goes into looking after each and every patient in the NICU, I can promise you it isn’t necessary. 

Image: Supplied. 

2. The NICU is not a scary place. 

Almost everyone has had an experience with a hospital in their lifetime, and the majority of those experiences are negative. 

One of my greatest worries when Max was born was what it would be like to visit the hospital every day, how draining it would be, and how lonely it might be for him to be stuck there hour after hour without his mum or dad for company. 

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The NICU is not like the rest of the hospital, or really any other place you’ve ever been. A tremendous amount of thought has gone into making it a welcoming place for families.

Of course, it’s a functioning intensive care ward, so there are beeping machines and IV drips and doctors, but you might also find fairy lights, personalised nametags for each baby made by nurses on their admission, hand-sewn quilts donated by parents of past patients, and a parents' room where you’re encouraged to choose books to read to your baby. 

In the NICU, nurses speak about and deal with their patients with such affection that the thought of it still brings me to tears. 

On the day we left the hospital, five weeks to the day after Max’s birth, we hugged our favourite nurses and joked about dropping him back off for babysitting. 

If the prospect of the NICU itself scares you, please don’t let it – you’ll find that it’s significantly less intimidating than you’re imagining. 

3. You are still a parent while your baby is in hospital.

Having your first baby admitted to the NICU, especially before you’ve had a chance to hold them, is a special kind of grief. Everything about a mother’s body and mind postpartum, from raging hormones to swollen breasts, is designed for her to hold a baby in her arms. 

It can be painful to watch other people leave the hospital with their baby like it’s no big deal after going home without yours, but you might also feel like a bit of a fraud. 

While other new parents are complaining about lack of sleep, nappy changes and purple crying, you most likely can’t relate.

The NICU experience is so different to the way you expected your first weeks or months or parenthood to look that you might find yourself questioning if you’ve really begun 'parenting' at all.  

If you only take one thing away from this article, please let it be this: the absence of those 'quintessential' early parenting experiences doesn’t make you less of a mother or father. On the contrary, this might be some of the hardest parenting you’ll ever do. 

Learning new medical jargon, pumping every three hours to feed a baby who can’t yet breastfeed, driving to and from the hospital every day, the intense emotional rollercoaster of returning home empty-handed – and then deliberately setting all of that aside so you can give your baby a big smile every time you see them? If it feels overwhelming and strange and exhausting and bewildering, welcome to the club: that’s parenthood. You’re doing it. You’re really doing it.  

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4. It’s okay not to be at the hospital every second of the day. 

When your baby is first admitted to the NICU, the temptation is to set up camp and never leave. The prospect of doing anything else apart from sitting by your baby’s bedside can be heartbreaking. But ensuring you take time for yourself – to physically recuperate after birth, and also to give yourself a mental break – is absolutely critical to avoid burning out. 

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A helpful tip is to find out when the doctors do their rounds, and aim to be there for those if possible. That means you’re receiving the most up-to-date information about your baby’s condition every day.

Around those times, you can build a daily schedule that works for you. The doctors and nurses will let you know how much physical interaction you should be having with your baby every day (which might range anywhere from an hour or two of chest to chest 'kangaroo care' all the way through to a full breastfeeding schedule). 

Before my son was old enough to breastfeed, my husband and I fell into a routine of visiting the hospital in the morning between 8am and 11am and again in the evening from 6pm to 9pm. 

I had to set aside the guilt about not being present in the hospital 24/7, because I knew the best place for my son was resting inside his humidicrib, and the best thing for me was to give myself some space every day to relax. 

5. Every cloud has a silver lining. 

No, really. Even this one. For starters, the opportunity to get a full night’s sleep in the few weeks after giving birth (whether vaginally or by c-section) gives you a fantastic head start on the healing process. 

I found it useful to think to myself that I was focusing on my recovery so that I could be at the absolute top of my game when we were eventually able to bring Max home. 

More importantly, you’re in a unique position in the NICU of having access to newborn resources that you wouldn’t get anywhere else – or at least not without forking out a whole lot of cash. 

NICUs have lactation consultants available 24/7, not to mention Australia’s leading neonatologists and paediatricians on call. You’ll have amazing support if you choose to breastfeed your baby, and will have access to the right doctor, physiotherapist or specialist to suit your baby’s particular needs. 

Although it’s not a situation you’d choose to be in, you can absolutely take advantage of the benefits. 

6. Take an enormous number of photos.

I know. I get it. The photos of your baby with a tube in their nose in a humidicrib just aren’t the same as the professional photo shoot your neighbour had with their new baby and their puppy in their backyard. 

The lighting is bad. You look like hell. You’re wearing a mask and goggles because of COVID precautions and there are three nurses in the background of the shot. STILL TAKE THE DAMN PHOTOS. 

Ask a nurse to take a family shot – yes, even if you can’t hold your baby for it – at least once a week. Take selfies during kangaroo care. Document that first nappy change, first bath, first breastfeed and first bottle. It won’t be Instagram-perfect, and it doesn’t matter a single bit. 

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Those are your earliest memories with your child, and you better believe you’re going to want to look back at them, even if in the moment it feels like an experience you’d rather forget. 

Image: Supplied. 

7. Don’t forget to celebrate. 

Hey, you might have missed this in all the chaos, but you just had a baby!!! Congratulations! Crack a bottle of champagne and take a moment with your partner to let it sink in. 

Things may not have gone as expected – in life, they rarely do – but you still did something incredible together. It’s worth a toast.    

8. This is only the beginning of your baby’s incredible story. 

Every family’s experience in the NICU is different. You might be looking at a short stay or a longer one, but by and large you will eventually be able to bring your beautiful baby home with you. On that day, the plans you made all those months ago will finally fall into place. The feeling of walking out those hospital doors with your baby is almost like giving birth all over again. 

And when you look back, through sleep deprivation and tears, watching your baby grow and thrive, your baby’s stay in the NICU really will just be a blip on the horizon. 

There is so much more to your baby’s life – and your journey as a parent – than your stay in the NICU. 

I promise, it’s worth the wait.  

Feature Image: Supplied.

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