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Coping while your baby is in the NICU

>> Tuesday, March 8, 2011

I recently had a good friend of mine deliver twin boys just a few weeks earlier than her full term 37 week twin due date. She soon realized after birth, that her babies would be placed in the NICU until they were able to go home at 36 weeks. It was a surprise followed by emotions that she hadn’t experienced before.
How you may feel while your premature baby's in the neonatal intensive care unit?

If at first you feel distant from your baby while she's in a NICU, you may wonder whether there's something wrong with you as a parent. Or you may worry that because you can't snuggle with your baby, you won't be able to bond.

Rest assured that feeling distant is a normal reaction for parents during the early weeks of their infant's NICU stay. And feeling distant doesn't mean you're not bonding. Your bond with your baby began during pregnancy and continues to grow long after she's born.
Over time, as you adjust to the NICU, you'll feel closer and more like a parent to your baby. As time passes and your emotions change, keep in mind that most NICU parents feel many positive and negative feelings -- even at the same time. This is because your heartfelt connection with your baby includes all the joy and the pain.

Many NICUs welcome parents and encourage them to help take care of their babies. As soon as your baby is ready, you will be able to bathe, feed, dress, and hold her.

Taking care of your baby will help you feel closer to her. And as you begin to feel more involved, you'll feel more confident as a parent and more certain of your ability to take care of your baby after she comes home.

How to bond with your premature baby in the neonatal intensive care unit

When you're with your baby, observe her pleasure or discomfort at certain sounds, sights, touches, movements, tastes, or smells. When she withdraws or gets fussy, stop or reduce whatever stimulation is bothering her. When your baby is calm and alert, see what's soothing or enjoyable for her.

If your baby was born prematurely, don't expect her to have much interest in the world for a few weeks or even months. Similarly, if your baby is very sick, she needs all her energy to recover.

To encourage your baby to respond to you, try some of the following strategies:

Focus on your baby. Give yourself permission to relax and enjoy special moments. While it's normal to feel anxious, breathing deeply may help you feel calmer and able to tune into your little one.
Pay close attention to your baby's cues. If she arches her back, change or hold back your touch. See whether she calms when you cup her head and feet with your hands. If she turns toward you, offer her eye contact or a gentle voice -- or both. If she turns away when you talk but toward you when you sing, she's showing a preference for that kind of voice.
Provide a calming touch, voice, or activity. Try talking in a soothing voice, singing, or reading to her, swaddling her in a blanket, cupping her head and feet with your hands, cradling her in your arms, rocking her, or holding her upright on your chest or shoulder. By helping your baby stay calm when she's awake, you help her stay alert without becoming overwhelmed.
Take photographs of your baby. In the NICU, you're focused on your infant's health and may not be thinking about taking pictures of your baby. But photographs can be very meaningful for families during this time.
If possible, decorate your baby's space. Though the hospital isn't very private or cozy, work with the staff to try to make it a little bit more like home. You may be able to bring a blanket to drape over the incubator. Ask the medical staff if you can place family photos or small toys in or near the incubator. You may be able to leave a cloth with your scent or a recorded tape of your voice or some special music, so your baby's reminded of you when you're away.

Tips for coping while your preemie's in the NICU

For many babies, the NICU stay is like a roller coaster ride, with ups and downs, triumphs and setbacks. Of course, the parents are also along for the ride. The following tips can help you deal with your baby's ups and downs:

Give yourself permission to cry and feel overwhelmed. You may be concerned that if you let your feelings flow, you'll never be able to pull yourself back together. But you will. Allow yourself to feel this release of emotion.
Establish a routine. Find a way to balance work, home life, and visiting the hospital. Allow yourself to leave your baby's side when you feel comfortable doing so. Your baby needs you, but it's also important to have time to yourself, with your partner, and with your other children. 
Also take time to do things you enjoy, such as exercise. These restful breaks will help you find the strength to keep going.
Connect with other NICU parents. These parents share many of your feelings and struggles. Share your experiences, informally or in a support group. Ask NICU staff if there are graduate NICU parents whom you can connect for support.
Explore your spiritual side. It might be helpful for you to reflect and lean on your personal spiritual perspective. You may find comfort speaking with a pastor, priest, bishop, rabbi, minister, or imam.

It's normal for this experience to challenge your religious and spiritual beliefs. In any case, remember that prayer, meditation, or quiet reflection can help you find emotional strength and hope, and can guide you through this challenging time.

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