The unexpected perks of having a NICU baby (and a few realistic cons)

Unexpected perks of having a nicu baby doctor check up
Iryna Inshyna/Shutterstock

Finding yourself in the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) is definitely not part of the parenting fantasy.

But the reality is that some of us will deliver our babies early—while others will experience difficult births or medical complications requiring urgent intervention. Suddenly, those precious first cuddles we dreamed about are put on hold, and instead we’re reaching for our newborn’s tiny fingers through a tangle of wires and wondering what comes next.

As a mom who’s checked into the NICU twice with small, premature babies, I get it. There’s a reason nobody puts an incubator on a Hallmark card or high-fives us for having an emergency C-section. Our journey comes with risk, and the unknowns continue for the next however many days, weeks or months (and sometimes years). Even if our child is one of the healthier babies, NICU can be a scary place—and for good reason.

An admission to the NICU can be tough and adjusting takes a bit of a mental pivot. There are new fears and anxieties, several ups and downs and possibly some hard conversations around finances. It can feel emotionally jarring as you juggle time between home and hospital and perhaps multiple children. You’ll feel hopeful, but also spaced out, tired and confused. You’ll worry you’ll never take your baby home, knowing that some won’t, and you’ll be nervous about what your future holds. The NICU experience is a unique kind of hard to add to the everyday complexities of parenting a newborn.

But, like most things in life, it’s all about perspective. What can be helpful is knowing that there will also be some real—and unexpected—benefits to starting your journey in NICU (even if it doesn’t initially feel like it). After two experiences in the NICU, I’ve learned that a compassionate, and sometimes creative, approach will do more for you and your family than focusing on the turbulence.

Here are my tips to help you make the most of your time as a NICU mom—and get you through to the other side.

First of all, know that this is the very best place for your baby

Throughout your journey, keep in mind that you’re in the NICU because your newborn is receptive to support. Your little one is responding to treatment with an entourage of medical experts monitoring them under 24/7 surveillance. They truly are in the best place.

We are so fortunate to live in a time and a place where the medical marvels of science and technology can help nurse our vulnerable neonates back to health and keep them well. I found it reassuring to remember that our care providers are equipped with the most up-to-date knowledge that history has ever known.

Consider this bonus time

If your baby arrived prematurely like mine did, a helpful way of processing your experience is by realizing that this time you have with them is a bonus. I spent an extra 8 weeks with my first, and 6 with my second, and even though there were complications, this meant I had several weeks of extra cuddles and connection. Their early arrival meant I didn’t have to wait as long as other moms do, and although for the sake of their health that would have been the preferred option, I feel lucky to have had some extra time to start bonding with my beautiful, early babies.

Parenting 101

Even if you read through a library of books, as any parent will tell you, the real questions start when you take your baby home. In the NICU you’ll be encouraged to be as hands-on with your baby as possible, so this will give you time to ask the questions you can’t easily ask from home. Twenty-four-hour care is an opportunity for round-the-clock support for families too, so you can use this time to brush up on parenting basics like breast or bottle feeding, bathing, first aid and even diaper changing.

I used to say our time in NICU felt like we were given parenting training wheels. Our NICU experience was a chance for my partner and I to learn as much as we could before we took our children home into the ‘real world’.

Celebrate the mini milestones

If your baby has a health condition or arrives prematurely, circumstances may prevent them from meeting some of their milestones conventionally ‘on time.’ But that’s OK!

While you’re in the NICU you’ll learn to appreciate the little things that have a huge impact on your baby’s life. You’ll celebrate achievements like turning off the oxygen support, gaining the necessary grams, dressing your newborn in their first outfit and no longer needing a feeding tube. These acknowledgements can feel cathartic for parents too as you all edge closer to home time. And when your baby eventually achieves all the successes you’ve waited for, it will feel even more incredible—because they’ve worked so much harder to get there.

Enjoy hours of cuddles and kangaroo care

Nothing is more important for a NICU baby than skin-to-skin time, also known rather cutely as kangaroo care. This is when you dress your baby in their diaper only, and snuggle them closely onto your bare chest. Skin-to-skin is beneficial for a number of reasons including regulating your baby’s heart rate and breathing and helping them adjust to life outside the womb. It’s also exquisitely relaxing and helps you connect with your newborn. There may be wires connecting your baby to a machine, but kangaroo cuddles are easily manageable and the nurses are there to help.

Create a home away from home

Even though the NICU isn’t where you imagined spending your formative days as a new family, you can add personal touches to make your baby’s space more comfortable—even homely. Books, toys, sensory flash cards and bedding are easy ways to personalize your station while packing a small care pack for yourself will help you settle in for the days or weeks ahead. If your hospital permits, you may even be able to attach photographs of your family to the incubator to make your baby’s home away from home a little more familiar.

As you’ll likely be going home at night to rest, you can leave a ‘bonding square’ with your baby to comfort them with your scent. Both you and your baby sleep with a square of fabric (usually knitted) then exchange them with each other the next day. This keeps you connected during those times when distance keeps you away.

Capture the moments, even if you think you’d rather forget

You may feel a little uncomfortable taking photos of a baby who needs NICU support, but this is the beginning of your baby’s story and that in itself deserves to be cherished. Taking photos of little toes and tiny fingers can be a sweet reminder of how precious and fragile your baby was when years later you admire the strong, self-sufficient person they’ve grown into.

An effective photo idea to try is placing a water bottle alongside your baby so you can gauge their size. It’s surprisingly easy to forget the scale, so even if it’s not one for your socials right now, you can reflect on these memories later.

Appreciate how strong your little one really is—you’ll be amazed

Looking at your baby attached to machines, or settled into an incubator, can be a heartbreaking experience, especially while their future is unknown. Our babies look so frail and helpless and as a parent it can be difficult to watch. At times you’ll wonder whether they are truly OK— and sometimes you’ll question if they’ll ever grow strong enough to be discharged.

Then, all of a sudden your sweet baby will amaze you. They’ll breathe on their own, they’ll gain weight, they’ll latch onto the breast. Something will inevitably happen at some point in your journey that proves that your baby is more incredible than you can ever imagine. There’s a pride and power that comes from knowing that despite the difficulties that came their way, our babies are so very mighty.

Know that this too shall pass

For all the challenges—emotionally, physically and possibly financially—please know that this too shall pass. Spending time in the NICU can sometimes feel like there’s no real exit strategy, but there always is, even if you don’t know how or when. Whatever happens, you will eventually leave the hospital and move on from this experience.

As they say, the days are long but the years are short. This is just a mere chapter and you—and your baby—are much, much stronger than you think. Take it all in and make the most of the support and care around you. Before you know it, you’ll be home and your NICU time will be a distant but very special memory where your baby’s life began.