7 terrifying things NICU parents want you to know

If you know a parent with a preemie who is fighting for their life, these are their harrowing experiences.

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For most parents, welcoming their newborn into this world is joyous, so they want to celebrate this life-changing milestone. However, for parents who have to admit their born-too-early babies into the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU), it’s usually the start of their worst nightmares.

Gleneagles Hospital's nurse manager, Susan Teo, notes that babies admitted to NICU are usually newborns suffering from:

* Severe respiratory distress syndrome.
* Severe meconium aspiration syndrome.
* Blood loss.
* Poor Apgar scores.
* Extremely low birthweight.
* Body temperature instability.

If your little one is in the NICU, this will be a challenging time for you. This is what you’ll have to deal with…

1) It is a never-ending emotional roller-coaster ride If your physician deems it to be necessary, your infant will be transferred to the NICU almost immediately after birth. Here, your infant may be placed in an isolette — an infant incubator — to regulate their body temperature. Their body will also be covered with pads and cuffs that hook them up to machines keeping tabs on their vital info.

You might find it difficult to stay calm as you’re full of fear and worry, while your body’s pregnancy hormones are also in free fall. Says Dr Lim Boon Leng, a psychiatrist at Dr BL Lim Centre for Psychological Wellness, “While it may be impossible not to worry, tell yourself that worrying is not useful.” So, channel that energy into taking good care of yourself and your spouse. Make sure to rest well and eat properly.

“While it may be impossible not to worry, tell yourself that worrying is not useful.”

Every day you get to spend with your newborn in the NICU is a blessing. Every little milestone bubba clears is a call to celebrate. Yet, the joy may be short-lived as your baby’s condition could suddenly take a turn for the worse. Teo says parents should expect unforeseen changes in their baby’s condition. She advises, “Asking the doctors whatever questions that come to your mind ― even the silly ones ― can help clear any doubts and misunderstandings.”

2) You’ll need to plan your finances You’ll need to do your sums with your spouse to figure out if you can afford treatment for your child. As different financial schemes are in place in the hospitals, don’t hesitate to ask about these.

Making concrete plans for your financial future is vital because it’s a challenge to hold down a full-time job while caring for your child in the NICU. You may need to ask for flexible work arrangements or even go on unpaid leave for an extended period of time. All these factors will inevitably compromise your monthly pay.

3) You may not be allowed to hold your newborn Depending on bubba’s condition, you may not get to hold your child except to touch him when you put your hands into the incubator. But don’t let that stop you from bonding with your child. Dr Lim notes that your newborn will also respond to your voice, so be sure to talk to your baby or even hum a song.

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4) Kangaroo care is the highlight of your day Giving your child skin-to-skin contact — known as kangaroo care — will benefit your infant, especially if they were born prematurely. It is also the only time of the day where you’ll be able to hold your munchkin. Teo notes that parents can offer kangaroo care for at least an hour after each feeding. Some of its benefits include…

* Stabilisation of baby’s heart rate and body temperature.
* Improved breathing.
* Improved oxygen saturation levels, which indicates how well oxygen is being delivered to the organs and tissues.
* Less crying.
* Better quality of sleep.
* Rapid weight gain for the low birthweight babies.
* Improved cognitive development, reduced stress levels and pain responses and a positive effect on motor development.
* Stronger parent-child bonds.

“A baby would need to weigh at least 2kg with no signs of infection and feeds well before they are ready to be discharged or transferred to a normal nursery.”

5) The hospital becomes your second home… Caring for your newborn in the NICU is an all-consuming job. You’ll find yourself seated right by your baby’s side to monitor their vitals. Needless to say, the stress will get to you. Teo advises parents to take short walks or go for tea breaks to relax. “Parents can also bring books or magazines to read between feeding times.” Writing journals are another way of passing time and it helps you keep track of your baby’s milestones.

Unlike other parents, you won’t know when your infant would be stable enough to leave the hospital. Teo explains, “On average, a baby would need to weigh at least 2kg with no signs of infection and feeds well before they are ready to be discharged or transferred to a normal nursery.”

6) … And the nurses and fellow NICU parents become family Teo notes that NICU visits are limited to only two visitors each time. And unless your baby is critically ill, only the parents will be allowed into the NICU. Grandparents will only be allowed to visit if the baby is critically ill. This is also why the NICU nurses often take on the role of counsellors.

Teo explains, “Nurses are the ones who provide emotional counselling by regularly updating the condition of the baby and giving [parents] advice and information on how to cope with their sick baby.”

In the NICU, you will meet and interact with other parents who are going through the same ordeal as you are. Teo usually advises parents to share their experiences with other parents in the NICU as it can be a source of support for others.

As for loved ones, Dr Lim advises that you do simple and practical things to ease the couple’s load, like caring for their other children’s needs. “Loved ones [should also] be empathic — listen to the couple and allow them to be emotional thus helping [them relieve their emotions].”

7) Sometimes your tiny one may not survive Not all babies in the NICU will live to see the light of day, although technological advancements have helped to improve an NICU baby’s chances of survival by leaps and bounds.

Dr Lim notes that that if their baby dies, the parents have to begin the grieving process. Sometimes, couples may take up to six months to recover from the loss of their child. “In the meantime, family members must encourage the couple to talk about their experience and pain repeatedly, and be patient with the couples’ sorrow.”

Loved ones can also help the couple by looking out for signs of complicated grief. These include the inability to function in their jobs or in their day-to-day social life. Dr Lim highlights the other symptoms:

* Having suicidal thoughts or showing such behaviour.

* Showing an avoidance of grieving, preferring to pretend that nothing has happened.

Dr Lim stresses that it is vital for these couples to seek professional grief counselling when they show signs of complicated grief. And if they become depressed as a result, they can be treated for this condition.

Photos: iStock

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