Like every other parent, you probably dreamt about what it would be like to bring your baby home. Perhaps you pictured them snuggled in a cozy blanket and tucked in your arms. Maybe you’d be leaving with balloons or flowers in your hands and excitement in your heart. Chances are your dream didn’t include going home without your baby.
Sometimes, you know before the baby is born that they might have to spend extra time in the hospital. Other times, it’s a complete surprise. Either way, it’s hard to get ready for the tidal wave of feelings that hit you when you have to leave your baby behind. You might feel happy about having your new baby, scared for their future, and angry that this is happening—all at the same time. And your feelings can get really strong when you’re just plain exhausted after giving birth.
Many parents struggle when they leave the hospital before their baby. Learning more about what to expect will hopefully make it a little easier for you.
What You Might Be Feeling
As you get in the car to leave the hospital, you might feel like your whole world has fallen apart. Our article on going home from the hospital without your baby shares one mom’s story. Like her, you might be worn out and need some time for rest and recovery. But you’re also scared about your baby’s future and don’t want to miss even a minute of your new baby’s life. It gets overwhelming to try to understand all of these feelings.
Your family is not alone, though. Here are some feelings other parents have told us they had when leaving their baby at the hospital:
Sadness and anger.
Fear about your baby’s life and health – and that you won’t know what to do when they do come home.
Excitement about having a new baby.
Guilt, wondering if you could have done something to prevent an early birth or disability.
Self-pity, relief, and then back to more self-pity.
Detached from your baby.
Jealous of parents who go home with their babies right away.
When infants need extra hospital care, they go to a part of the hospital called the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU). The NICU has equipment to keep babies warm, help feed them, help them breathe, and keep track of their development until they are ready to come home. It’s staffed by doctors and nurses who know how to work with babies who need extra care.
The NICU is a busy place. Nurses and doctors come in to check on the babies all the time. Other parents are there with their babies, too. There’s also noise: sounds and beeps from machines and other babies crying.
Some parents have said it feels harder for them to connect to their babies in the NICU. Your baby might not be strong enough to be held right away, and babies in the NICU usually spend a lot of the day sleeping. But your baby still knows that you are there. They will feel your presence, just like they could hear your voice before being born.
Even though you and your partner can’t always snuggle with your baby the way you want to, there are ways you can connect:
Touch your baby as much as the doctors and nurses say that you can. If your baby isn’t strong enough to be held, ask the nurses for ideas. Even gently touching your baby’s back, feet, or fingers reduces their stress (and probably some of yours too).
Celebrate your baby’s milestones.
When your baby is ready to be held, try kangaroo care. This is when you hold your baby against your bare chest with a blanket draped over their back. This skin-to-skin contact helps your baby learn to breathe, stay warm, and bond with parents. And it helps with breastfeeding (even if your baby isn’t ready to breastfeed yet).
Pay attention to your baby. Learn the ways they show what they like and don’t like. Watch them move toward your hand or react to sounds.
If you’re planning to breastfeed, now’s a good time to start. A lactation consultant at the hospital can help (if your hospital has one). Your baby might not be strong enough to eat on their own yet, but you can use a breast pump. You might be able to borrow one from the hospital. Pumping works best if you can be near your baby, look at pictures of them, or have something that smells like them with you. See our blog post about breastfeeding in the NICU for more ideas.
Sing to your baby or tell them stories.
If the NICU says it’s okay, dress your baby up and take pictures. Try the cute clothes from your baby shower. If those don’t fit, some preemies may fit into doll clothes. Snap-up sleepers work best for babies who use feeding or breathing tubes.
If the NICU will let you, bring in pieces of home. Family pictures, a favorite blanket, a sibling’s artwork, or anything else that gives you a little bit of home will help you and your new baby build your relationship.
Taking Care of Yourself
With your baby in the NICU, it might be hard to leave at all. But spending all that time by your baby’s side is exhausting too. And your baby will need you to be strong enough to take care of them when they come home.
Here are some ways to take care of yourself:
Set up a routine. You need time to be with your baby; you also need time to sleep, eat, shower, and maybe even take a walk. If you have other children, they’re going to need time too. A routine helps you take care of yourself even when you don’t feel like doing anything.
Let other family members and friends support you. Ask them to help with other children or pets. If the NICU allows it, maybe they can come sit by your baby so you can take a break.
Let yourself feel all of your different types of emotions.
Fathers, partners, or other people supporting the new mother can also help her by visiting the baby if she can’t, giving her updates, and even doing simple things like getting food and water.
Taking Care of Your Family
Having a baby in the NICU affects your whole family. Your other children were probably looking forward to their new sibling coming home. Grandparents and aunts and uncles will want to know how your baby is doing too.
Here are some ideas for helping your whole family:
Know that you and your partner might not react to your baby’s NICU stay in the same way. One of you may want to be there for every minute of the day, while the other might have a hard time being at the hospital for more than 5 minutes. Try to be patient; everyone has a different way of coping.
If the NICU lets you, bring your other children to meet their new sibling. You might want to bring older children to the hospital for a few hours after school.
Make yourself leave the hospital for part of the day to spend time with your other children or family.
Use a website like Family Patient or a private Facebook group if you want to post updates for friends and family.
Making the NICU Staff Part of Your Team
Most of your child’s care in the NICU comes from nurses and doctors, but you also might get help from therapists and social workers. The nurses will care for your baby when you can’t be there. But they aren’t just there to help your baby; they’re there to help you too.
Here are a few tips for working with NICU staff:
If you know you might deliver early or your baby will need extra care, tour the NICU when you are still pregnant. Ask if you can meet the nursing staff and neonatologist (doctor who works with infants in the NICU).
Find out the nursing staff schedule. If you can’t be there, call to check on your baby 30 minutes before shift change. That way, you can get an update from the nurse who’s been there all day or all night.
See if you can connect with the doctor. Most NICU doctors will check on the babies in the morning. If you can be there early, try to catch them to ask questions about your baby’s health. If your NICU asks families to step out during doctor’s rounds, you might catch the doctor in the hallway to talk.
Ask the staff if you can take a nap or stay in an unused room. Sometimes, if they aren’t full, they might let you use a room for free.
There’s no way around it: It can be really hard to have a baby in the NICU. But with a little planning and support, you can find ways to make it a little less stressful.