I remember standing at my preemie’s bedside and having the nurse say, “You don’t want to watch this.” The nurse was preparing to take another blood sample – a bilirubin check – by slicing my baby’s heel. This heel stick occurred twice a day for almost two weeks and it never got easier to watch, but I felt compelled to be there and hold his hand. How could I leave my baby when I felt he needed me most?
The nurse would give him a pacifier coated in sugar water, hold his skinny little leg down, and then I assume stick his tiny heel. Every time, I had to turn my head and close my eyes for just a second. I do not like the sight of blood or needles, and watching my own three-pound son get poked was excruciating.
He seemed to think so too. He would let out a long shrill wail before hiccuping and gnawing on the sugary pacifier again. The nurse assured me that newborns don’t feel pain as acutely as adults do, but it was hard to hear her over his cry.
The National Institute of Health offers this obvious nugget of truth: “The baby will most likely cry when his or her heel is pricked to get the blood sample.” The NIH then tries to offer this solution: “Studies have shown that babies whose mothers hold them skin-to-skin or breastfeed them during the procedure show less distress. Wrapping the baby tightly in a blanket, or offering a pacifier dipped in sugar water, may also help ease pain and calm the baby.”
I am not sure what studies the NIH refers to here, but several NICU nurses advised me to withhold from breastfeeding during the blood test. They said that they did not want my baby to associate breastfeeding with the pain of a heel stick.
All three of my preemies went through at least a few days of bilirubin checks. They are older now – 9, 5, and almost 2 years old – and don’t seem to remember those painful moments from the NICU. My nine-year-old recently discovered the tiny scars on his heels and thinks of them as a badge of honor (apparently scars are cool in fourth grade?!).
A few years ago, I decided that I was really going to conquer my fear of blood and needles and become a regular blood donor with the American Red Cross. I donate blood about four times per year, but I can’t say that I’ve really conquered my fear. I always breathe deeply as the nurse preps my arm, then look away as she places the needle. It doesn’t hurt nearly as much as it did when I watched my preemies get poked.
For all the parents out there that have to watch their kids suffer for even just a moment, I know that you suffer too. Hang in there, my friends.