Updated: May 9, 2020
1. Our NICU stay was still a NICU stay.
Our baby was still taken away from us shortly after birth. We were not allowed to breastfeed or hold our son for a period of time. In our case (and many others), our son was taken to a different hospital, and I wasn’t able to be with him at all for the first day of his life. It was only due to a superb recovery that I was able to spend his second day with him. There were times we couldn’t hold our baby and we didn’t get to make many decisions about his initial life experience. No matter how short a NICU stay is or isn’t, we can’t have those hours and days back. 2. Time moves at a different speed in the NICU. A few months after our son was discharged, I followed another mom through the same journey across a long distance. When her daughter was discharged at 20 days, which was twice my son’s stay, I couldn’t believe how fast it had gone. It may have seemed like our stay was over in the blink of an eye but it felt like much longer inside those walls. If it seems like my obsession with this time is out of proportion to the length of our stay, consider how long it might have felt from the outside. In my memory, those 10 days took as long as his entire first several month.
3. There is really no such thing as a healthy baby in the NICU.
No matter when a baby is born, they are in the NICU for a reason. There are full term babies and micro preemies and literally everything in between. Some babies struggle with one area (respiratory, feeding, infection, etc), others struggle across many. Age is not a reliable predictor of what type of struggles a baby might have. There are babies who were younger than mine with fewer issues and those who were much older and had more. The fact that your cousin’s baby was born the same gestation as mine and was healthy doesn’t mean my son didn’t really need to be there. It was not just a precaution, he was there because he needed help.
4. I really did everything I could to breastfeed.
My first few days in the NICU I couldn’t believe how accepting and encouraging the nurses were of whatever I was able to provide. It felt like so little and as the days went by and we were still counting in milliliters. I was horribly discouraged and it was the nurses who celebrated every drop with me. When our son showed absolutely no interest in breastfeeding I had to make a choice between bottles or breast that included staying or going home. I chose going home. For more than 2 months we struggled to establish breastfeeding and when we finally did it was short lived due to complications with reflux and growth. Part time or not at all was my choice and while I wish it had been different, I don’t blame anyone that it wasn’t.
5. Even short term stays can result in long term struggles.
Just because we came home after a relatively short stay, doesn’t mean we came home without complications. Feeding was a work in progress even at discharge and breastfeeding didn’t come at all for weeks later. Growing was hard for my preemie and he still struggles with severe reflux that compounds all of it. At six months old, he sometimes chokes so hard on his own spit that I have unbuckle him from his stroller or pick him up quickly to help him clear his airway. His development has been slow and steady but he doesn’t look or act like other babies his age. He was relatively healthy for his age, but he has catching up to do and that will take time. Even babies with short NICU stays can come home with challenges that need to be followed for a longer period of time and they may remain susceptible to additional illnesses in their first months and years.
6. We know that other NICU families have mixed feelings about our short stay.
Seeing babies come in and be discharged before your baby is hard. Seeing babies younger than yours come in for a few hours of observation or quickly discharged is hard. You saw us come and you saw us go and you had to stay. I get that stinks and I want NICU moms with longer stays to know that I understand my experience was not what yours was, regardless of any struggles that we are still having. I also am happy to lend you an ear or a shoulder if you need it because I’ve been there enough to not want to be there a moment longer than need be and every moment seems to take forever.
7. Our hearts ache for the families we left behind.
We think about the babies that we left behind regularly. I remember their names and their faces. Those who had parents visiting regularly, I remember their parents. I remember those who’s outlook seemed bleak and wonder what happened to them. I remember those who lay day after day alone without a visitor and those who learned devastating news through the assistance of a translator. I have no idea if any of those people will remember me, but I remember them. The same goes for our nurses and doctors. In the grand scheme of things, our stay really was short but all of these people made a lifetime of impact on me.
Heidi Indahl is a homeschooling mom of seven who writes at Work and Play, Day by Day where this post originally appeared.