Posted: Oct 29, 2012 8:00 AM
Leaving your child behind in a neonatal intensive care unit is heartbreaking. Here are one mom’s 10 tips for making the most of it — and being a model patient.

Write down everything

Stash a notebook and several pens in your purse. Want to talk with the neonatologists? Find out when they do rounds (warning: it's often early) and be at your baby's bedside with questions ready. Each neonatologist who tended to Charlie at Presbyterian Hospital in Charlotte showed tremendous compassion, patience and intuition. They always seemed to know when this new mommy needed a little extra time and reassurance.

Be flexible

Your baby's nurse may have a schedule she plans to follow, and it might not coincide with when you're able to be by your child's side. Our first NICU nurse, Erica, taught me about the importance of schedule for Charlie and terms I'd never heard before, like rooting and bradycardia.

Charlie holding dad's hand nicu
Charlie reaching out and wrapping his finger around dad's finger one night, very late, when he had stopped at the NICU to see him before driving home from work.

Bring the right tools

If you're able to hold your baby (sometimes tubes prevent it), a Boppy or any type of pillow will be critical. NICU babies typically are premature and quite tiny, which means your arm muscles will get tired quickly from holding this miniature bundle of love.

You'll also want a foot stool, and NICUs rarely have enough to go around a decent one costs about $25, and you can donate it when you leave. I like the Medela nursing stool it's affordable quality.

Medela nursing stool

Also, consider a voice recorder if one parent can't be there each day. The Husband would record Dr. Seuss books at night, then I would play his recordings for Charlie the next day while The Husband was at work. I have a cool picture of Charlie waving in the direction of the recorder, listening to his Daddy. (Note: Metallica induces tears and is not a recommended recording subject.)

Ignore the monitors

Monitor numbers will make you crazy. The best thing for your sanity is watching your child and learning the signs he or she shows during a bradycardia event or anything that might bring nurses running. Charlie came home with a heart monitor, but it didn't issue a warning like the hospital monitors gave as I watched his numbers drop. Nope, the at-home monitor would suddenly just blare. I quickly learned to watch for his skin tone to change and his lip color to turn bluish. It wasn't fun, but it was easier than relying on a machine, and I felt more empowered.

Give your child snaps!

NICU babies can have multiple monitors on their little bodies, so when your baby graduates from naked-except-for-a-diaper to real clothes, make sure you have plenty of options with snaps instead of zippers. It's also easier to change diapers without completely undressing a tiny pumpkin who catches a chill faster than we do.

Charlie and mom in nicu
Mid-way through our NICU stay, when things were progressing well and I had been discharged. I spent many, many hours holding my beautiful boy and singing, "You are my sunshine," because honestly, it was the only children's song I knew back then!

Say thank you

We had amazing experiences and thanked everyone in the NICU constantly except the darn janitor who insisted on shaking open trash bags at our sleeping pumpkin's feet. Looking back, I realize he helped create a sound sleeper, so now I wish we had thanked him, too. Several times, we brought donuts or cupcakes and then had almost a receiving line at Charlie's cribside as staff stopped to thank us. NICU staff are remarkable, special people, and it seemed apparent they don't hear that enough.

Don't forget your child

I will never forget being locked away in a privacy room using a breast pump when a fire alarm suddenly sounded. At 36, I'd never heard a fire alarm that wasn't false, and as I casually looked around at all the junk I'd have to pack up, it suddenly occurred to me: I have a baby out there! Surveillance video would have been priceless, because I undoubtedly set a record for storing breast milk securely while partially dressing and bolting from the room only to discover, of course, it was a false alarm. The point is still valid: Don't forget you have a child now!

Baby yourself

I spent hours with Charlie every day, holding him and watching him sleep. While bonding was vital and beautiful, it gave me too much time to think and worry about the unknown. By the end of the month, I had established a better routine of spending time with him during his feedings, when he was awake, and then letting him sleep as I grabbed a snack in the cafeteria or just sat outside in the fresh air and connected with family and friends.

While bonding was vital and beautiful, it gave me too much time to think and worry about the unknown.

Suck the lactation consultants dry

Of their knowledge, that is! Spending time in the NICU is like going to Baby College. You are surrounded by experts, so ask questions and take notes. Our fabulous consultant, Diane, taught us about kangaroo care and helped me get past the guilt of not producing enough milk which is common if you aren't able to hold your baby right after birth and are under enormous stress (check, and check!).

Stalk the nurses

Not literally, but again, you're in Baby College and nurses are your professors. I learned how to navigate the inevitable pee/poop combo infants master early. I learned that proper burping should draw shocked gawking from childless passers-by. And I learned how to really use that nose-snot-squeegee thing. (By the way, take the hospital one. There's a reason they have industrial-use snot squeegees!)

Your time in the NICU will feel endless and like the most emotional rollercoaster. But it will end, and that first night at home will be terrifying. Hypothetically, you may be tempted to kidnap your favorite nurse. Know that you're not alone countless parents have gone before you. And if you really need reassurance, I guarantee those nurses will answer your call and make you feel better... at least for the first few days.

After that, you might want to pop by with some cupcakes.

Read more about premature babies

Tiny miracles: How to bond with your NICU baby
Tips for parents of babies in the NICU
Benefits of kangaroo care for preemies