Everyone hopes their pregnancy will be uncomplicated and free from emergency. Few people consider the possibility that their baby could be born many weeks before the due date and need to be given special care for the first few days, weeks or months after birth.
What to expect
If you are shocked when you walk into the neonatal unit, you are not alone. It is very likely to be different from almost any other place you have been, and you may have just experienced one of the most traumatic episodes of your life. The room is full of monitors, high-tech equipment and the frequent sound of alarms. But all of the staff know that you are under stress and are there to help you as well as your baby.
Many of the babies in the neonatal unit are extremely tiny and immature. The equipment that surrounds them is designed to keep them warm, to monitor many of their body’s functions and to support their breathing.
Depending on how early your baby is born or how unwell he or she is, you may be shocked when you see him or her for the first time. Premature babies may appear thin with little body fat and look different from most term newborn babies that you may have seen before. This is simply because they are at an earlier stage of development as they were born early. If your baby is very premature, he or she may only be the length of your hand and may well sleep for almost 20 hours each day.
The fact that your baby is in a neonatal unit (NICU) will have come as an enormous shock to you. However, the good news is that you can still do many things you planned including breastfeeding. Even if you have decided against breastfeeding, you could express your milk for a little while. Giving this to your baby will help to protect him or her from many different illnesses.
If you choose to breastfeed, you should express your milk as soon as possible, and it can be stored in a fridge on the unit until your baby is ready to feed.
The womb world is most certainly the ideal place for the human fetus to develop. Thrust into the harsh world of the NICU, your preemie is missing out on a great deal of the soothing sensory input of the womb world. While your baby is medically fragile in the unit, the medical team will focus on the medical needs and keeping your baby stable. But once your baby is medically stable you can ask the NICU team if you can start some sensory care for your baby by enacting the womb world:
Kangaroo mother care (KMC) or skin to skin is a great way to give your baby calming touch and has a great effect on weight gain and bonding.
The womb is a muted space visually. Cover your baby’s incubator with a towel or sheet to keep the area darker. Try to start differentiating dark and night by keeping the space darker at night than during the day.
Keep the NICU as quiet as possible and turn down the alarms to quieter but still safe, noticeable levels. Do not place bottles and other objects onto the roof of the incubator as the sound resonates through to your baby’s ears.
A tough one and probably best replicated when wearing your baby in KMC
Help and support
Discussing your feelings with other parents can help. Many neonatal units run a group where parents meet to share their experiences or simply have a coffee and a chat.
Your GP may be able to refer you to a counsellor. You could also ask a member of staff at the neonatal unit if there is a counsellor or psychologist available to talk to parents and offer support.