In all of our planning for the perfect, peaceful, natural birth, often we forget that sometimes, even with the best of births, things can go wrong.

I was a lucky mom. I had four very uncomplicated natural births. Then, I became pregnant with twins at age 37. I feared for the worst, and then let down my guard when I carried to term.

The girls were born vaginally and with relatively few complications. (Our twin B had a prolapsed cord and was posterior with a hand on her cheek, but she was also small and our doctor was calm and cool under pressure.)

Once the babies were born, I assumed we were out of the woods.

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But, I was wrong. Our little miracle, Emily, was born with a congenital defect. She had a web of tissue covering her trachea, and her first few hours of life were spent struggling to breathe.

Thankfully she was born in a hospital with a well-staffed NICU ( my two older sons were born in a small, wonderful, community hospital 90 miles from a NICU).

She has whisked away from me and I was left with her healthy twin, blissfully unaware of the struggle going on down the hall.

An hour or so after the girls were born I was visited by the neonatologist who explained to me the problem Emily had, the procedure is done to correct it (she was very briefly intubated to break through the web), and her treatment plan, and prognosis.

The doctor was very optimistic that Emily would actually be out of the NICU within the next day and by my side.

Then, I learned the reality of the NICU. You cannot make plans in the NICU. Babies are tricky. While Emily was now breathing well, she was not feeding as well as a 38-week baby should.

And, since she had a twin, who was not allowed in the NICU and still needed care from me, I was not available to hold and cuddle Emily 24/7 in order to stimulate a healthy nursing rhythm.

So, her 24-hour observation period extended into a five-day feed and growth period.

The good news is that NICUs are staffed by some of the best doctors and nurses that you will ever find. They love the babies they care for deeply and they love teaching families and getting babies ready for life on the outside.

The challenges are that NICU life is not convenient for parents. In order to even enter the unit, there is a 2-minute hand (and arm) washing routine.

You also have to work around staff schedules as parents are usually not welcome during shift changes and when doctors are rounding. 

Although I am an advocate of feeding on demand, getting Emily discharged demanded that she eat increasing amounts of breastmilk and formula on a set schedule. I had to let go of my fear of formula in order to get my baby home.

Pumping extra breast milk was not practical at the time, because if I was not in the NICU feeding Emily, I was in my hospital room feeding her sister. My milk had not really even come in yet, and the stress of walking across the hospital between feedings was not helping my supply.

So, Emily would be weighed before and after each feeding. She had a set amount of breast milk or formula she needed to take at each feeding, so she was often “topped off” with formula, which actually lowered my stress level a bit.

As she got stronger, she ate more from the breast and was on 100% breastmilk on day five when she was discharged.

If your baby ends up in the NICU, here are my tips:

  • Listen to the doctors and nurses. They have tons of experience with premature and sick babies.
  • Ask questions.
  • Spend as much skin-to-skin time as you can.
  • Nurse as often as you can, but understand the need for schedules in the NICU.
  • Remember to eat and sleep!
  • Spend time away with your spouse. This is a stressful time for him too.
  • Be prepared for ups, downs, and speed bumps.
  • Connect with other NICU parents, they understand what you are going through and will be listening ears.
  • Take a lot of photos. Even though this is a stressful time, eventually you can show your child just how far he/she has come!
  • Roll with the punches. The better you can follow suggestions from staff, the sooner your baby will be home in your arms!