September is NICU (Neonatal Intensive Care Unit) Awareness month. Every year more than half a million babies are admitted to a NICU.
When I was pregnant with my first child, I didn’t think about a NICU at all except to make sure the hospital where I planned to give birth had one. I knew that NICUs cared for premature babies, but I didn’t realize that more than half of the babies admitted to a NICU are born at normal birth weight and are 37 weeks gestation or older. This is exactly what happened to me. My son was born at 39 weeks and weighed 8lb 7oz. It was a long and difficult delivery and he eventually came out with the umbilical cord wrapped around his neck. As a result of this, he had fluid in his lungs and was struggling to breathe. He was not immediately admitted to the NICU, the nurses were hoping that his blood oxygen would pick up on its own (I think, my memory is fuzzy), but ultimately, just a few short hours after he arrived, he was admitted to the NICU.
I was in terrible shape. Nothing I had read during pregnancy prepared me for the aftermath of birth. The bleeding, the pain, the tears.
And nothing had prepared me WHATSOEVER for how to handle the aftermath of birth without a baby in my arms.
My son was in the NICU for just two days and then in the Continuous Care Nursery (CCN) for two days, but it felt like a lifetime. I cried nearly all the time. Breastfeeding a baby who was on an IV was practically impossible, so I alternated between crying while pumping and crying while trying to breastfeed. I don’t think I would have survived those four days without the amazing NICU staff. I don’t remember any of the nurses’ names, but they were all incredible. Calm, reassuring, helpful, experienced. Exactly what I needed in my fragile, new-mom state! They weren’t just caring for my son, they were caring for me, too, and ohmygoodness I needed some care. It’s not just nurses, either. Neonatology is a highly specialized field so NICUs have whole teams of professionals, including neonatologists, nurse practitioners, nutritionists, respiratory therapists, lactation consultants, psychologists, and social workers.
In hindsight, and especially after the birth of my daughter two years later, there are many things that I would change about the birth of my son. My choice of OBGYN, how I expressed my wishes (or didn’t), and my approach to breastfeeding (or not), among other things. But while my experience in NICU was traumatic, I am so grateful it was there for my son and to all the amazing staff members who helped us through it.
There are several dates to observe in September and, of course, not every NICU stay has a happy ending. Join me in taking a moment to think about the babies in NICUs and all the people who care about them.