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I am in a group on Facebook for parents and families of NICU babies, and came across someone asking the other day about how much time they should be spending with their baby in the NICU. Concerned they weren’t there enough, and feeling guilty for going back to work, they turned to their peers for reassurance that they weren’t completely abandoning (re:permanently scarring) their child.
I read their post, and my heart hurt for them. I can remember when I was asking myself that question. There’s a lot that you will probably feel guilty about when your child is in the NICU, if you allow it. When my Alice was in the hospital that was 30 minutes from me, I spent anywhere from 1-10 hours with her per day. Everyday I was there, sometimes twice. Sometimes overnight. The amount of time I was there varied, depending on work, my husband’s schedule and my son. In the first two weeks after she was born, I was there whenever I was able to get a ride.
I felt guilty even then, to be honest. It felt like nothing was enough. The guilt multiplied when she was transferred to a hospital two hours away. I started by staying at the Ronald McDonald House a few days, coming home a couple days to be with my son and work, then back to the hospital.
This proved to be terrible for my family and myself. The days that I was at the hospital were long, and quiet. If I wasn’t at the hospital all day, I felt even more guilty than being at home. In my mind, I was staying 2 hours from the rest of my family to be at the hospital, and so that’s where I should be except when sleeping. I would start to feel completely anti-social, and by the time I got home to my husband and son, I didn’t feel like myself. I would then have to readjust to living with people (and even talking to people), and once I started to feel better, I would turn around and go back.
In order to save my sanity, we called it quits on that set up. I started to visit every other day, sometimes every two days, depending on the schedule at home. I would drive 2 hours there in the morning, sit with her and read to her for several hours, then two hours home in the evening. This was better for me mentally, better for my son emotionally, and better for my husband schedule-wise. It also lead to extreme guilt about not being with Alice.
It never fully went away, the guilt. However, as I started to take care of myself better, and give myself breaks, I found that the guilt lessened. Since I wasn’t thinking about the thousand other things I had to do, I was able to be more focused and loving towards her while I was there.
So, how much time should you be spending with your baby in the NICU?
The answer is, however much you can. When I say that, I don’t mean however much you physically can. Although, that plays into it. I mean, physically, emotionally, and mentally.
Having a baby in the NICU is exhausting on all fronts. It’s important to be taking care of yourself as much as you can also. When you do, it helps your baby more.
When I was burning myself out trying to be everywhere and do everything, while spending all of my free time at the hospital, I found myself checking out and thinking about what else needed to be done, I was even bringing my work to finish up. While I was there physically, I wasn’t mentally. That wasn’t helpful to me or Alice.
So find your balance.
Go back to work if you need to, or even if you want to. Spend time with your other children (this is actually very important for their mental and emotional health. Remember, they are stressed about this change too.) Then, when you are with your baby in the NICU, you can really be there with them. You can focus on them and their needs.
Keep in mind, there are nurses and doctors with your baby all day. While nothing replaces mom and dad, your child is well cared for and their basic needs are constantly being met. You can also call to check in. Stay up to date on their treatment day by day. Check their weight gain and how much they are eating. Whatever your questions, call and ask them. I called once on morning shift, and once on night shift on days I couldn’t be with Alice. I did this no matter what, even if I didnt have any questions. It just helped to give a feeling of connection.
You are enough. Remember that. Whatever you can do, is enough.
I spent three months wondering if I wasn’t with my baby enough. Feeling guilty on days that I would go out to dinner or have a friend over for coffee. This was few and far between, but I felt guilty that all of my time away from my baby wasn’t being used for work and my other child. Now that she’s home and I’m with her all of the time, I realize that feeling guilty was unnecessary. I gave her as much of me as I could, and of course that was enough.
Are you still new to the NICU? Here are 6 Terms Every Preemie Parent Should Know