To the uninitiated, the neonatal intensive care unit can seem less like a nursery and more like NASA! Everywhere you look, there are wires and tubes and computer monitors and machines.
That’s a good thing, of course. All of the technology visitors see in the NICU is a big part of why outcomes for extremely premature infants have gotten better and better over the years. And yet things like isolettes and infant warmers, feeding tubes, and IV infusion pumps, ventilators and phototherapy lights, and computerized monitoring equipment can seem more than a little intimidating when it surrounds a newborn you can literally hold in the palm of your hand.
Visiting the NICU for the first time when it’s your son or daughter in that isolette, wired in to what seems like a laboratory’s worth of tubes and machines, can be particularly terrifying.
Parents of preemies certainly have a unique post-birth experience – one that can involve bonding through voice and presence instead of through touch, fear mixed with feelings of triumph, difficult choices, and the reality of a long and difficult road ahead. And the strangeness of the NICU can magnify the difficulties of the post-birth experience for preemie parents.
Considering that prematurity is, according to statistics, an epidemic globally, what if pregnant women and their families were introduced to the NICU before it became their home away from home? For obvious reasons, most pre-natal maternity ward tours do not include NICU walk-throughs. The babies in these isolated areas, whether sick or simply growing, aren’t ready to handle the presence of so many people. But there’s no reason why midwives, OBs, nurses, and hospitals can’t introduce women and families to this important part of the hospital in the early days of pregnancy through literature and photographs and their own stories.
Until prematurity and the long-term impact of premature birth become a part of the standard early pregnancy dialog the same way care providers discuss the possibility of birth defects and health risks to the mother, organizations like ours and many others will continue to raise awareness of not only the existence of extreme prematurity, but also what moms, dads, grandparents, and loved ones can expect just after birth and in the weeks and months and years beyond.
Knowing the NICU may not ease all the feelings of fear and confusion that new parents of preemies face, but it can put a kinder, more reassuring face on a place that is just where a very early baby needs to be to thrive.
Did you know the NICU before you needed it? If not, would that have made your unique experience a little less frightening?