By Samantha McConnell
Giving birth to a child goes hand in hand with a plethora of expectations. New parents anticipate being able to immediately hold this new life that has been growing for a solid nine months. They look forward to that first cry, that terribly sticky meconium diaper and the constant rousing of a wiggly newborn. Unfortunately for some, these scenes are experienced only in their imagination. Often for reasons unknown, mothers all over the world have these precious moments stripped from them following a premature labor or sick baby requiring a stay in the often unmentioned NICU.
Each year an estimated 40,000 babies are admitted to a Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU) for a variety of reasons. The majority, roughly 23,000, are admitted as a result of a premature birth (born before 37 weeks gestation). Despite these staggering statistics, discussions of the NICU are so taboo that many mothers forced into the NICU club are blown backwards by this red-headed stepchild of the postpartum world.
How is a mother to react following an unexpected emergency c-section to save her own and her baby’s life? What takes place after being told you cannot hold YOUR baby for days, sometimes weeks after birth? I had the pleasure of interviewing several brave mothers who experienced these exact scenarios.
Healthy Pregnancy at First
First, it is important to remember that sometimes a premature labor leading to time in the NICU can be completely unexpected. A sudden placental abruption can be all it takes to send your neonate on the fast track to the birth canal. This was the experience of Kim, 31 of Westlake, Ohio. Describing hers as being an “easy pregnancy”, she suddenly began “[having] a terrible pain on [her] left side that would not go away”. After consulting with her OB-GYN and having an ultrasound, the abruption was confirmed. Knowing that a premature delivery was unavoidable, Kim was injected with two steroid shots to aid in speedy lung development for her little guy. At 32 weeks, Kim was fortunate to deliver a 4 pound 1 ounce baby boy with the ability to breathe on his own, but his prematurity left him with a less than lackluster sucking reflex and spent the first six weeks in the NICU.
The Need to Breath
Premature labor alone is enough to send some newborns into the NICU. The last month of gestation is primarily for fattening the little chunkers up and developing their vital organs; lungs and breathing preparations in particular.
When premature labor progresses too quickly or the laboring mother is sent home with a false diagnosis, steroids cannot be administered to speed up lung development. Such was the scenario for Brittney, 20 of Cleveland, Ohio. Born at 34 weeks, her son was not breathing when he was born and required multiple resuscitations to get him breathing on his own; though it was still labored. Her son spent the first month of his life in the NICU.
When It’s Not a Surprise
Sometimes, the NICU isn’t a surprise for expectant mothers. Among the mothers interviewed, pre-eclampsia and HELLP syndrome were common culprits in expected NICU stints. Nicole, 33 of Seven Hills, Ohio; Betty, 26 of Parma, Ohio; and Rachel, 23 also from Parma were all diagnosed with Pre-eclampsia in their second to early third trimesters and were made aware of the possibility of early deliver by c-section.
When You’ve Got to Go…
For each of these mothers, experiencing the NICU hadn’t originally been a factor in their birth plan. For those without a previously detected condition that made pre-term delivery inevitable, learning that their newborn baby would be going to the NICU was an unpleasant surprise; and a terrifying one at that.
Despite the vast differences in what lead to admission into the NICU, the reactions were unanimous. Each mother felt, to some degree, “guilty that my body couldn’t [keep him in] like it was supposed to”, as stated by Nicole, 33. Many also stated they felt numb, with Kim, 31, going as far to say that she “was just going through the motions”. Naturally, crying was a standard release for these women as they sat idly by, waiting for their newborn to be healthy enough to go home.
Having your child moved to the NICU is generally not in the plan. When many mothers learn that their child will be moved, sometimes to a completely different hospital, they suddenly find themselves staring down the barrel of a completely unfamiliar path. They don’t know what to expect, let alone what to do. The latter stories are of course examples of the extreme. Many admitted NICU babies check out within a few days after only needing moderation or treatment for much milder ailments. But, had these mothers been familiar with the practices of the NICU, could they have perhaps been a little more at ease, and less terrified?
I think so.
To learn more about the top 50 Hospitals for Neonatology in the United States, follow this link taken from US News.
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** Very special thanks to all the mothers who partook in sharing their NICU stories. All were not mentioned, but their stories touched my heart immensely.