When it comes to taking care of a newborn, there’s plenty that’s impossible to predict. Will baby take to nursing quickly? Will she be a good sleeper? Will he cry constantly? And if baby is born ahead of schedule, the list of unknowns multiples. About 1 in 10 births in the US are premature, defined as being born before 37 weeks. So while caring for your preemie in the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) is anything but easy, you’re in good company. Here, moms of premature babies offer up their best advice for how to cope with those difficult first few days and weeks.
1. Dive right in
"Get as involved as you can with feedings, diaper changes, etc. Even if baby is sleeping, just being there in the NICU good for both of you."
2. Try skin-to-skin
"When you're visiting baby at the hospital, ask to do as much kangaroo care as possible. If they're not suggesting it, be vocal and ask for it. Because it's really powerful for helping with your emotions, and it's good for baby too. If your baby's not up for it, still connect and bond with her by talking quietly to baby, reading aloud or humming/singing lullabies. She'll love hearing your voice."
3. Pump with a purpose
"If you're able to, pump breast milk. I felt so helpless when my boy was in the NICU, but being able to provide him breast milk made me feel like I could do something. Your hospital will probably have a pump you can rent."
4. Feel free to text instead of call
“I’m a very private person and pull inward during times like this. I communicated with many people and offered updated via text and Facebook, explaining that I just wasn’t ready to talk in person or via phone. I kept things pretty soft, stating that "she has some typical preemie challenges and needs further monitoring." I would share more details and feelings with a few close friends who had preemies, but it was always via text or messenger because I just couldn't talk about it without breaking down.”
5. Write things down
"For your time alone at home, definitely think about keeping a journal. A few months from now, these NICU days will be a complete blur. It's a great way to vent all of the raging emotions you're dealing with, which is better than keeping them all bottled up. And it will be a good way to remember this crazy time."
6. Accept a ride
"Absolutely take whoever is offering rides to the hospital up on their offers. However, you may need to let them know that you want some alone time with baby. I found it very exhausting and frustrating to try to arrange for everyone to hold them and feed them, etc. I was trying to 'reward' them for being so kind for giving me rides that I missed out on crucial bonding time with baby."
7. Don't ask Dr. Google
"Don't start Googling or searching blogs about conditions unless you've found a very reputable source. The internet is full of the worst-case stories and they will terrify you."
8. Find other preemie moms to talk to
“I had a really hard time the first few weeks after I got discharged. My husband didn't know what to do with me: I would just start crying at random times, and it was often. I finally decided to find other people in the same boat, and being able to talk to them helped me more then anything.”
9. Pump after being with your baby
“Pump near your baby or have a picture of them while you pump—both helped me a lot while my son was in the NICU. I noticed a huge difference when I pumped right after holding him skin-to-skin or helping with his care vs at home without him.”
10. Learn your doctor's schedule
"Try to be available when the doctors do rounds so you can ask questions and understand the course of action."
11. Take it one day at a time
“Being in the NICU, you will have set backs and achievements. Take one day at a time and know that there is an end. Once your baby is home, it really will seem like a distant memory. Keep you head up and know that your babies are in the best place possible.”
12. Take a break
"When you've had enough of the NICU, allow yourself a break without feeling guilty. The NICU can be a very isolating place and it wears on you. A refreshed mama is the best mama."
13. Keep yourself busy
"The best advice I can give is to visit as much as you can. And when you’re not in the NICU, get the nursery ready for when your baby comes home. It'll help keep you busy. That's what I did, and I managed to keep my sanity while my baby was in the hospital.”
14. Tap the NICU staff for tips
"The nurses taught me, as a first-time mom, how to take care of my baby. I'm a lot more confident now."
15. Celebrate each step
"The one positive I know that comes from this besides our special miracles is that we will appreciate everything so much more and know how big of a deal each milestone is!"
Want to offer your own advice or hear more from moms of preemies? Visit our preemie community board.
Updated November 2017