Bringing home a newborn can be scary under the best of circumstances. When that baby has special medical needs, a homecoming can elicit anxiety or mixed feelings.
I was utterly terrified to bring my daughter home from the NICU.
I remember when our neonatologist gave us an estimated release date, about two weeks in advance. By that time, Evelyn had been in the hospital nearly two months.
Don’t get me wrong – I hated the fact that Evelyn was in the NICU. By the time we reached the two-month mark, sometimes I felt like I couldn’t handle one more day in that environment. It bothered me so much that I had to ask a nurse to help me if I wanted to hold my daughter. I lay awake at night wondering whether she was crying and nobody was going to her. The fact that nurses, many of whom were strangers to me, knew more about Evelyn’s routine than I did made me resentful. Inside the NICU, I craved a moment of privacy with her. We didn’t have individual rooms; rather, thin curtains separated one incubator from another, and the racket of families talking and alarms going off on all sides was enough to send my blood pressure soaring.
Yet, the thought of leaving the NICU made my stomach flip.
Our daughter, who wasn’t even 5 pounds, seemed so small and vulnerable even though she had doubled her birth weight. She still needed supplemental oxygen and it wasn’t all that long since she had been having apnea episodes and desaturating on a regular basis.
After having been under the constant care of trained professionals since birth, it seemed unthinkable that the hospital was going to hand Evelyn over to my husband and me, two parenting novices. Before Evelyn was born I’d barely even held a baby. Now they were going to let us take this medically fragile infant home, by ourselves. On top of all the mystery surrounding general baby care, we would have to use her oxygen equipment, apnea monitor and pulse oximeter, plus administer six medications a day.
In hindsight, I realize that I was much better prepared than I gave myself credit for.
One of the benefits of a long NICU stay (and there aren’t many) is that you really can get good experience in taking care of a baby. In my case, I learned to breastfeed, bottle feed, give a bath, cut fingernails, change diapers, give medication, take a temperature, use all of the home medical equipment and do infant CPR, all under the supervision of experienced nurses.
I didn’t realize it prior to Evelyn’s release, but being involved with her routine in the NICU taught me all the skills needed to be confident in her care once she came home. While she was new to our home, she wasn’t new to us.
To anyone who’s still in the NICU, my advice would be this: If your nurses don’t offer to get you involved in your baby’s routine care, take the initiative to do so. Learn everything you can, and ask questions. Watch the nurse perform a task like bathing or temperature reading, and then gradually take over the responsibility yourself. Don’t be afraid for the nurse to see you doing it wrong – it happens all the time. What’s more, any baby care that you learn in the NICU will seem a thousand times easier once you get home. If you can change a diaper inside an incubator, you can do it anywhere!