When my twins were born at 32 weeks, we faced extended time in the NICU (neonatal intensive care unit) so they could finish growing. From the moment I was told to prepare for early delivery, hundreds of thoughts flooded my mind about what it would be like in the NICU.
What began as a daunting journey into the unknown became a learning curve that I had no choice but to embrace. Like any other mum in the NICU, I just wanted my babies home safe, so I was prepared to deal with whatever came along.
We were lucky. Although an early scan had picked up an anomaly with one of their umbilical cords that restricted their growth, they came out a good weight. Once their breathing was under control, it was just a case of watching them grow in their little humidicribs and getting used to caring for babies that were a lot smaller than I was used to.
Here are some thoughts I had as a NICU mum:
1. ‘I’m scared of the unknown’
I was terrified of the NICU at first. I was worried about seeing all those tiny babies in their humidicribs, little defenceless bodies that aren’t ready for the world yet, and their poor parents who just wanted to cuddle their newborns. I was scared of seeing my own babies at 32 weeks. What would they look like? How would they feel to cuddle? Would they be healthy?
2. ‘Tiny babies look like … babies’
This may sound silly, but I found it really hard to imagine a 32-week old baby. I’d never seen one before. I worried that they might not look fully formed, that it would be too confronting to see. My obstetrician organised for me to tour the NICU and meet another 32-week baby, so I’d be prepared to for my own. With relief, I discovered that babies at 32 weeks still look like babies. Sure, a lot smaller than a 40-week baby, but these little people were still fully formed and gorgeous. Kind of like a small doll.
Read more about premature babies:
- Everything you need to know about premature babies
- New program offers hope for premature babies
- What your premmie baby will need once they come home
3. ‘Premature babies cry and it’s heartbreaking’
I wasn’t prepared for hearing my premmie babies cry. While not all premature babies have the lung capacity for crying, babies as young as 29 weeks have been known to let out a ‘mewing’ cry to communicate their needs. The hardest thing was not being to pick mine up and comfort them the way I wanted to. Inside their humidicribs, there were wires and breathing equipment to navigate around. All I could do was open the little door of their box and try to sooth them with my voice and touch.
4. ‘Um, what do I do?’
I felt like a third wheel at first. The wonderful midwives and nurses fluttered around taking care of all the babies and I had to ask them what I should do with mine. Eventually, I found my groove and would turn up every day ready to have them placed on my bare chest for kangaroo care and feed them through their tubes. As they grew, I also started doing their ‘cares’: changing their nappies and checking their temperatures. Still, it wasn’t the same. They were on a strict feeding and sleep routine and I couldn’t be there all the time. I relished the time I got to take care of them and couldn’t wait to get them home and be a proper mother to them.
5. ‘Leaving my babies behind hurts’
I knew my babies were arriving early so I was prepared for being separated from them. But it still broke my heart in two when it came time for me to go home each day. Of course, I was happy that they were being looked after and I knew that they weren’t ready to come home with me. They had to stay in the NICU and special care units for their own good. But still … when babies are no longer in your belly, they should be in your arms, right?
6. ‘Ah, so this is what real superheroes are like’
The people who work in the NICU are incredible. I remember watching the neonatal team work on our babies to get them breathing right after they were born. I was in awe. These were people who’d decided to specially train just to save premature babies and make them well enough to take home. They existed to make parents’ dreams come true. Of all the things in the world they could have done, they chose to rescue tiny babies. That’s the stuff of real superheroes if you ask me.
7. ‘Oh my God, we’re lucky’
Our babies were in the NICU and special care unit for five weeks and during that time we met a lot of other parents and babies. Some were there for just a day or two while their baby’s blood sugar levels evened out, while others we met had been there for weeks. The midwives told us that our babies would be fine at 1.8kg and 1.6kg. They were used to working with babies weighing much less than that. Immediately we felt blessed and our hearts went out to other mums and dads going through tougher times with their own babies.
8. ‘Whatever it takes, parents will do it’
I met a set of parents that had been visiting their 23 weeker baby for six months. They lived two hours away from the hospital and had been commuting back and forth all that time. I got up at 5am to go in to feed my twins as they practised breastfeeding, and then I’d go back home to look after my other two children before returning in the evening for more time with the babies. I expressed around the clock. All of us were in there, doing whatever it took to get our babies home.
And we’ll all tell you the same thing: it was worth it, every minute.