All three of our children went straight to the Newborn Intensive Care Unit — the NICU — after birth. This can be a frightening experience. Babies that are perfectly healthy and born without complication don’t go there, right? And yet, while I would not wish it on anyone, there are many things to love about the NICU and our experiences there.
1. The NICU Staff
The doctors and nurses that work in the NICU are all-stars. These are the people that society has entrusted to care for at-risk infants, and it shows. No matter the hour or day, this is a place you’ll find energetic, assertive professionals. When it came time to write the hospital review cards (we always fill out a stack of them), most of the people that stood out in our memory were NICU nurses. They were so good with the babies, and so patient with us. The answered a zillion questions.
You get to know certain nurses day in and day out because they work 12 hour shifts. You start to build a relationship. When we were back in the NICU with twins, and brought our 2-year-old daughter along, one of the NICU nurses remembered her. And us. They seem to care about everyone, and I like that.
2. Tight Security
Another thing we really loved about the NICU was the security. Everyone going in has to check in at a desk and be buzzed through a locked door. This not only serves as a comfort in the age of baby kidnapping paranoia, but it’s a great friends-and-family screen as well. In the regular hospital, anyone can find you can come visit with just a knock on the door. In the NICU, you can specify a list of people [grandparents] to be granted access. The others won’t get in without your approval.
3. Baby Care 101
Being in the NICU, while stressful, can be very valuable as a crash-course on baby care. We’d taken the baby class, of course, but there’s no substitute for hands-on experience with your own baby under the watchful eye of the NICU nurse. We assisted with our daughter’s first diaper changes, sponge bath, bottle feeding, and that sort of thing in the NICU. You get into trouble, and there’s a nurse there to help.
And usually helping is optional. If you’re worn out and the nurse asks if you’d like to “practice” yet another poopy diaper, feel free to say “Pasadena.”
4. Quiet Privacy
This part of the NICU experience likely depends on your hospital; ours delivers 10,000 babies a year so the NICU is top of the line. One of the things we really enjoyed was the quiet and the privacy of it. Aside from the staff, the only people really allowed into the NICU are the babies and their parents. Extended families and friends are sort of discouraged, and I find this a good thing. It allows for a sense of peace after the chaos of baby showers, labor, and delivery.
5. Comfort of Modern Medicine
Babies in the NICU are under more surveillance than Wal-Mart cashiers. They’re monitored for heart rate, breathing, blood oxygen level, intake, output, you name it. Our daughter’s birth was chaotic… 28 hours of induced labor, sweat, tears, every type of Lamaze that we learned… and then she was whisked off to the NICU almost immediately (because she came out so pale). There may have been some freaking out on our part.
Later, when everything had calmed down and she was in the superb care of the NICU staff, that was really the first time I took a full breath since it all began. It was in the dimness of her NICU room, lulled by the comforting beep of the monitors, that we slept for the first time since the labor induction. Mommy and Daddy stretched out on the couch behind a privacy curtain, and it was one of the best naps they’ve ever had.
6. Extra Free Stuff
I’m not sure why this is, but we netted a bunch of free stuff every time we went to the NICU. I’m talking infant formula, burp cloths, and our favorite newborn pacifier. I guess the understanding is that parents in the NICU are having a rough time of it, so they need a bit more help than most.
The nurses are very generous about this. When we left with the twins, they literally loaded us down with things like free formula. And we needed every bit of it!
7. Real Connections
The sad truth about health insurance in the U.S. is that they’re stingy about paying for hospital stays, even when you give birth! Once the baby arrives, a clock starts ticking after which you have to check out. The visit is so short, and hectic, you don’t really have time to connect with your nurses or caretakers. That’s too bad.
In the NICU, especially if your child has to stay a couple of weeks, you do get to know people better. You come to love certain nurses; you talk a lot with the pediatricians. You might even get to know other families. There are NICU reunions that bring back the families and babies to remember those times.
8. Baby on a Schedule
The NICU runs a tight ship, in my experience. These nurses have to look after 2-3 babies at a time, so they do it on a schedule. Baby A eats at 9, then Baby B at 10, and so on. And because it’s not their own baby, the nurses have no problem letting the babies get a little fussy before it’s time to eat. When their turn comes, it’s feeding, burping, diaper, swaddle, back to bed. These nurses are just amazing.
The wonderful result of this is that your baby ends up on a regular schedule of eating, sleeping, and pooping. This will work wonders for you when the baby comes home.