When we found out I was expecting triplets, the doctors quickly made us aware that it was a high risk pregnancy and that the babies would likely have to spend time in the NICU. I tried to prepare myself for the NICU experience, but I could never fully understand what a parent in the NICU goes through until I went through it myself. Our baby A (Savannah) was in the NICU for 6 days before we lost her. Our baby B (Paige) spent 55 days in the NICU before coming home and our baby C (Emma) spent 34 days in the NICU before coming home. The first time I saw my girls, I was overwhelmed because they were hooked up to so many machines. I went through so many emotions during our NICU stay that it was like being on a rollercoaster most days.
Here are some of the emotions parents may experience during their time in the NICU:
Fear: As a parent you want to protect and shelter your baby, and you can’t when your baby is in the NICU. You might not fully understand what’s going on and fear that your child may have a serious illness, a disability, or even die. The NICU is a scary place.
Anxiety: The NICU goes hand-in-hand with anxiety for many parents. I remember being worried that my phone would ring at any time with bad news from the hospital. I was worried that I wouldn’t hear my phone and then I wouldn’t be there for my girls. Every time I called the nurses to check on our babies, I held my breath until they said everything was going well.
Anger: Many parents feel anger that they didn’t get the birthing experience they hoped for, that they can’t take their child home right away like other parents do, that they can’t help their child, and that they can’t control events that happen in the NICU. You may even find that you’re angry at yourself. You may be angry that your body couldn’t protect your baby or that you couldn’t carry your baby longer. You may feel angry at other people as well and feel like they just don’t understand what you’re going though. I often felt angry that not only did I have trouble conceiving children, but I didn’t get the birthing experience that I’d always imagined and then we lost one of our babies.
Guilt: You may also feel guilty and wonder what you did wrong or what you could’ve done differently. I often found myself asking “what if” and “why me.” It took me a long time to sort through my guilt, especially after we lost Savannah, and it still resurfaces. I work hard to acknowledge these feelings and to know that I did everything that I could for my girls.
Loss: When you find out you’re pregnant, you have expectations of what things will be like when you have your child. Most parents picture a healthy, full-term child who they will get to take home after a few days. You may mourn the loss of this experience. Many mothers of premature babies also find that they miss feeling their baby inside and mourn the end of their pregnancy.
Joy/pride: There are some good emotions that you experience in the NICU as well. You may experience a sense of joy as your baby starts to make progress. You may feel proud of your child as he overcomes obstacle after obstacle and has many of his firsts (first bath, first bottle, first smile etc.).
Here are some helpful coping strategies to help you deal with the ups and downs of being in the NICU:
Celebrate small steps!! Your child is fighting big battles and every triumph, no matter how small, should be celebrated!
Take time for yourself. You may feel like you need to be at the NICU all the time, but you’ll burn yourself out if you don’t take breaks. Take this time to do something you enjoy or do something with your partner to reconnect.
Start a journal. Writing in a journal during your NICU stay can help you keep things in perspective on those really rough days.
Talk to supportive people. The NICU can be a lonely place, so work to find people to connect with who have similar experiences (even if it’s just an online support group). I don’t know how I would’ve made it through my pregnancy or NICU stay without my triplet moms support group.
Allow yourself to cry if you need to.
Help with the cares for your child. Change diapers, help give baths, take temperatures, and ask lots of questions. Getting involved in everyday care helps you feel more connected.
Remember to be gentle with yourself. Having a child in the NICU is overwhelming and trying. You’re doing the best you can do. Try to remember that one day soon, the NICU will be a distant memory.
Shelly Hopkins is a Project Coordinator for Project Sweet Peas division Savannah's Snowdrops.