No one can ever prepare for having a premature baby. You are overwhelmed by the fears, medical terms and emotions. Also, working through your own feelings and at the same time being there for your baby is overwhelming.
Here is Steph’s story. A mom who gave birth to her son at 36 weeks.
My Premature Baby Was Admitted to NICU – Here is My Story
1. Please tell us about yourself, and what you do.
My name is Steph. I am a mom to one human, four dogs and one cat. I own and run a doula agency called Life Journey Doulas in Gauteng.
In early 2019 I was made the Executive Director of The Doulas of South Africa (DOSA). I am passionate about empowering families and doulas and driving the profession of doulas forward
2. Describe your pregnancy journey, birth plan (if you had), birth story and your experience with giving birth at 36 weeks.
In my early 20s I was told that if I ever wanted to have children that I would need some form of medical intervention to make it happen. We fell pregnant unexpectedly in 2016 and our son, Noah-James was born a few days before Christmas. He was only due Mid January 2017.
When I fell pregnant with my son, I had loads of unsolicited advice thrown my way. One thing I was told a few times over was the benefit of having a doula.
At first I had no idea what it was, but a little research told me that it might be something I’d like to get for my own birth. You may read further about our Doula Practice on our Life Journey Doulas website.
Labour Four Weeks Early
After an all day migraine on the 18th of Dec, I went into labour, exactly 4 weeks early. I hadn’t even packed the baby’s hospital bag yet!
In hindsight, we probably should have gone in earlier than we did, but I couldn’t get hold of my gynae and I really didn’t think it was true labour . When we go to the hospital a little after midnight, the midwives and nurses did their best to stop my labour but it wasn’t meant to be. At about 6am my gynae arrived to check on my progress.
Noah-James Hadwen was born at 9.08am on the 19th of December 2016.
The epidural made it that when it was time for me to push, I couldn’t feel how to do it properly and so he had to be kiwi vacuumed out. The vacuum caused a hematoma on his tiny head.
Noah James was placed on my chest for a few minutes, before the NICU nurse told me that she needed to take him. My mama bear self questioned her motives, but when she pointed out how he was struggling to breathe I reluctantly let her take him. Bryan went with her and Noah, and my mom stayed with me.
3. Describe how you felt when your baby was taken to NICU?
Initially the hormones from birth had me a little confused and about what was going on. I remember what it felt like watching them run with his tiny self out of the room. My heart broke. But I was drugged and I managed to sleep for a while. It sounds terrible now when I reflect back on it. I didn’t scream or cry. I just trusted that my son needed extra care that I couldn’t give him in that moment and that it would all be ok.
Not having much time to bond with my baby initially did put me in a strange head space.
I remember Bryan coming to my room later on encouraging me to go up to the NICU to see him, and showing me videos of him, but I felt a bit….numb, I guess is the best way to explain it. I will forever be grateful to Bryan for being by my side. Had I been alone, I’m not sure how I would have reacted, I sometimes wonder if I would have made it up to the NICU on my own.
A feeling of indifference had settled upon me.
I have such guilt over it, but Bryan basically forced me to go up and see my baby. Although it must have been so difficult for him too, he was there for me, and I love him for that.
I did also struggle with a bit of postpartum depression and anxiety and it was definitely linked to not having the textbook perfect birth experience, and the bonding in those first few hours.
4. How long was your baby in NICU?
I always tell people that I am so lucky, because my son was only in the NICU for 6 days. But it was the most terrible 6 days of my life. The NICU changes you, whether you are there for 1 or 100 days. He came home on Christmas day (best gift ever!)
5. Could you hold your baby? Describe the experience and any ‘protocol’?
Noah was put on a CPAPP machine for his breathing and we weren’t able to hold him for the first day. He was a champion though and was soon off all oxygen (the pediatrician first prepared us for a minimum of a 2 week stay). Bryan was able to hold him for the first time on the 20th (Noah’s second day of life).
There is nothing that can prepare you for standing next to your newborn’s bed unable to hold him.
We touched his feet and stroked his head and talked to him. When we were eventually allowed to hold him we had to sit right next to his bed so that all his monitors could stay plugged in. He was soooo tiny.
Strict hand washing policies in the NICU governed our visits.
You can’t put any ‘outside’ items around your baby’s bed (they have special draws underneath the crib for nappies and wipes). You baby will also be wearing only a nappy and in our case a hat.
I’m a pretty minimal mom and I hadn’t seen the point in getting a special “Going Home” outfit, until going home became such a big deal. I spent several hours shopping for the perfect outfit, I was a little obsessed, I eventually settled on a Superman onesie. To this day whenever I dress Noah in a Superman shirt I think of that little outfit and how important it became to me because he would finally be coming home.
6. Describe the hard moments you went through as a mom having a baby in NICU.
Breastfeeding and Expressing
I was adamant that I wanted to breastfeed, but I couldn’t try and latch Noah until he was mostly off oxygen and we were only allowed to try breastfeeding when he was three days old. It was Grandparents visiting day in the NICU that day and the stress and noise and crowd made it sooo difficult. I remember how worried I felt that I might never get it right.
We did manage to latch him the next day and it was the best moment of my life!
The staff were EXTREMELY supportive of breastfeeding, and without their support I know my breastfeeding journey would have been much more difficult.
On the day I was discharged, we had to increase Noah’s feed amounts, and the stress of leaving him behind at the hospital meant that I struggled to get any milk expressed for him. Resorting to formula that day was deeply crushing for me, but I knew it was what was best for my baby.
Noah – James was also diagnosed with jaundice (a common side effect of vacuum assisted deliveries), and had to be kept in NICU for a few days longer than we had hoped. It was hard to see his tiny body on the billibed but I kept telling myself that it would be better for him to be in the NICU than coming home only to have to return to the hospital at a later stage.
The constant tests – heal pricks and blood draws – were devastating, I kept thinking about how painful his first few days of life were.
Hearing your baby crying as you walk into the NICU but still needing to take five minutes to properly wash your hands first is so hard. Your instinct screams at you to run to them and comfort them, but hospital policy (and common sense) dictate that you wash your hands first.
Being surrounded by people but feeling totally alone.
Watching the clock hoping time would slow down so that you can spend more time with him. Watching the clock hoping the time would speed up so that you can take him home.
The hardest thing for me was seeing him for the first time, in his tiny bed, with all the pipes and wires and machines connected to his brand new little body.
Your brain knows that the NICU is an unpleasant place, but no one prepares your heart before you go into that room for the first time and how truly devastating it is to see your baby like that.
We thankfully didn’t encounter any neonatal deaths while we were there, though the worry is always in the back of your mind. We bonded with some of the other parents in the NICU and are still friends with them.
7. What helped you get through the hard moments?
I’m not a religious person, but I can see how faith would help NICU parents through the hard times. For me it was the supportive staff, and my loving partner. I did, and do feel let down by the system because there should be someone there who looks after the parents of NICU babies. Someone who will prepare them for the experience, someone who will support them through the rough patches. I believe there is a great need for NICU doula support. It would have made a huge difference to me and my parenting journey.
8. Three pieces of advice you can share with moms and dads who have babies in NICU?
The guilt is normal, and in some ways never leaves you.
You know that there is nothing you could have done to change what happened, but your brain will try and find something to pin point. It is normal. It is also normal to grieve that your baby ended up in NICU. This means you might get angry, or depressed, or struggle to sleep, or loose your appetite. It is normal. Please reach out to someone who you trust and can talk to.
While your baby is in NICU, it is ok to take a break.
Being a NICU parent is totally exhausting! Do the things you won’t be able to do once the baby comes home. One night we had a date night. Another night I took a long hot bath alone. I tried to find the good in the really crappy circumstances.
You cannot do it all, so take the help.
Some people may offer help because they think it’s the right thing to do, that’s on them. If someone offers you help, take it. If you don’t need to worry about feeding the dogs today, then you can spend an extra few minutes with your baby doing skin to skin. It’s OK to ask for help. In fact it’s in your baby’s best interests and for you to. Take the help.
9. How can friends and family support parents who have a baby in NICU?
Genuinely be there for them.
The best thing I received in the time when Noah was in the NICU was a “visit” from friends of ours. They drove about 50kms to literally just come and drop off a healthy dinner for us. Our friends didn’t even want to stay for coffee. They knew we’d been eating junk hospital food and that we were driving up and down to the hospital several times a day, and they fed us real food. It was amazing.
Run a few errands
For parents who have an extended NICU stay, do those things for them that they might not be able to find time for, like laundry or walking their dogs. You could offer to drive them to the hospital, or buy/make them some easy healthy snacks and dinners, or run some errands for them. You can do these things without asking first.
Just do it, don’t ask
Don’t just say you’ll be there, actually be there. Instead of saying “ Can I help you with anything?” rather say “Hey, Susan, I’m going to do your laundry today, when would be a good time for me to come collect it?” or “Hey Joe, I’m at your door, won’t you come and grab these freezer meals I made for you”.
Then, check in on them regularly once they bring their baby home. For me, it was so bizarre being home alone. With no machines to tell me that Noah was breathing properly and with no nurses on standby, it was extremely stressful. I wish I had had more people who saw how much I struggled through those first few weeks. Yes, he was home, and yes we were so glad he was healthy, but the stress of his birth and the NICU time lingered for much longer than I would like to admit. Keep an eye out for PPD and PPA.
Any closing remarks to moms you may want to share.
For NICU moms:
You might have flashbacks weeks, months or even years later of your NICU experience. There are people who can help you overcome the trauma and it’s lingering effects.
For ALL Moms:
It is not your fault.
It is ok to ask for help.
It is ok to take the help.
You are not alone.
Hire a doula – seriously, they will help you not only through birth (whether you end up in the NICU or not), but you get postpartum doulas too who will support you through parenting especially in those difficult early weeks.
So much of my own journey would have been different had I had a doula.
I would have gone in earlier to be checked and it’s possible labour would have been stopped.
I wouldn’t have gotten an epidural. Which means I would have been able to feel how to push Noah out and he wouldn’t have needed to be kiwi vacuumed out. This meant that he wouldn’t have had a hematoma which means he wouldn’t have had such severe jaundice and might have been able to come home earlier.
I would have been better prepared for the NICU journey. Bryan would have had someone supporting him in those moments when I couldn’t). Hire. A. Doula.
What is your favourite motherhood quote?
Its technically a poem by Vicki Rivard called come together
mothers must mother
each other, too
we must hold each other up &
surround each other strong &
in the ear
of every new mother
we must whisper,