What's it like to have a baby in the NICU?


Announcer: Welcome to Stuff Mom Never Told You from Howstuffworks.com.

Molly: Hello, and welcome to the podcast. This is Molly.

Cristen: And I'm Cristen.

Molly: Cristen, it's baby week on Discovery Health.

Cristen: Indeed it is.

Molly: There are going to be all sorts of programs about weird pregnancies, crazy instances of having babies. You can't escape it here at the Howstuffworks office. We are baby, baby, baby here.

Cristen: We are baby, baby as part of Discovery Health, which is one of the arms of our corporate family. So we are doing a shout-out to Baby Week, specifically for a new show that's premiering on Discovery Health about the neonatal intensive care unit.

Molly: - a.k.a. -

Cristen: - the NICU -

Molly: - the NICU.

Christen: - which is where premature babies go to grow and get all of the support that they need before they can go home.

Molly: Well, actually, what I learned when we were doing this research, Cristen, is that it's not just necessarily premature babies. It can be any baby that needs a little extra TLC -

Cristen: Sure.

Molly: - maybe a medication regimen or something like that. I was surprised to learn that 1 in 10 babies spend some time in the NICU.

Cristen: Yes, and we learned that from the March of Dimes organization, which, as you may or may not know, is a nonprofit dedicated to infant health.

Molly: And the reason we're bringing them up so early in the podcast is they run one of the best websites for parents who have a child in the NICU. So that's where a lot of this information that is coming from today is going to come from, and they also provide a lot of support systems for parents who got a child in the NICU. Again, so that would be one of the first places you're going to turn, but the way we're going to approach this today is no one expects to have a child in the NICU mostly likely, unless you've had a really difficult pregnancy.

Cristen: Uh-huh.

Molly: You know, the fact that you have a premature baby might catch you unawares.

Cristen: Yeah. We might think of it as more of a worst-case scenario, but good new is, is that the NICU is ready to protect and support your baby. There is a lot going on, it's a busy place, it's not like the doctor just takes the baby and puts it off in a little isolation chamber, and calls it a day. There are a lot of people who can not only support your baby, but also supports mothers and families that are going through this. he March of Dimes points out that going through the NICU experience can be an emotional rollercoaster because, obviously, parents are very concerned if they have a premature baby that has to go to the NICU. There's just a lot of emotion surrounding that. You've just had a baby.

Molly: Right. It's supposed to be one of the happiest days of your life, Cristen. This new bundle of joy and, instead of getting to hold it and show it off, and take all sorts of cute pictures, you're dealing with a lot of guilt, a lot of stress, fear what's going on.

Cristen: Uh-huh.

Molly: So that's a little bit of what we want to try and address in this podcast. If you do become one of those 1 in 10 families, you'll have a little bit of idea about what's going on and, of course, it will give you a little bit of a preview for the show NICU.

Cristen: Yeah. So why don't we just walk our listeners through what you can expect in the NICU because I was kinda surprised to learn just how many different people you're going to encounter in the NICU. It's not just nurses and babies; you're going to have specialized pediatricians who are trained at taking care of premature babies, who are kinda the heads of the NICU. Then you're going to have support staff that will include other doctors and nurses, such as respiratory therapists who help the child breathe, you're going to have speech language pathologists who would work with a baby in terms of swallowing or feeding. NICU teams are also going to include social workers who are going to really assist the parents with everything from handling insurance benefits to dealing with that emotional rollercoaster that the March of Dimes referenced.

Molly: And if you are in a hospital, there will be additional people you can draw on, if you wanted to, if you wanted to draw on the clergy that's on staff at the hospital. Again, the March of Dimes works with some hospitals to have support staff there also.

Cristen: Uh-huh.

Molly: Let's talk about what all those people are doing because, like you say, Cristen, it's a big team. I think I would be most scared about walking in and seeing a baby covered with the tubes, the wires, in some sort of chamber. Tell me what's going on.

Cristen: A lot of times, premature babies will be kept in an isolette, which is more commonly referred to as an incubator, or a radiant warmer. This basically ensures that there aren't a lot of germs that are getting into it's very, very sensitive immune system and respiratory system, and also makes sure that the baby's body temperature stays up. An isolette also adds a layer of protection against noise. We might not think about that as affecting babies, but that kind of noise in their very sensitive bodies can be harmful. Those are usually connected to IVs that are delivering fluids and medication to the babies. They might have little adhesive pads on their chests, which are part of cardiopulmonary monitors to track their breathing and heart rates. Then they'll also have pulse monitors to see how much oxygen is in their blood and, then, also cuffs to monitor their blood pressure.

Molly: And perhaps a ventilator as well. So now they're hooked up to all these things and there's going to be a lot of tests throughout the day to make sure that the baby is progressing as it should. Most commonly, they're going to do some blood tests to check blood oxygen, sugar, bilirubin, electrolyte levels. They might also have a urine test daily to check on kidney function. There's going to be a lot of weigh-ins. There might be some portable X-ray machines, MRI scans to check organ functions. If there's a heart issue with the developing baby, they might have an echocardiogram.

Cristen: Now one of the most frightening aspects of having - if you're a parent who has a baby in the NICU, is this idea of your newborn child being in isolation. However, there are actually a lot of bonding opportunities that are made available to parents and their baby because doctors have found that skin-to-skin contact is very important for a premature baby's growth. Also, if possible, breastfeeding, breast milk feeding.

Molly: Right. Some people, they may not be able to actually feed the child through the breast. The child might not be developed enough yet to suck out the milk. So you can pump and they can administer it to the baby in a bottle, and maybe you'll be able to do it; that might be one of the milestones you get to hit as your baby develops. It might be fed by a tube for a while and, then, one day, it'll be, like, "Hey, baby's big enough; you feed it on your own." One of the tips that the March of Dimes provides is to just keep asking about that to see. It gives you an idea of your baby's status, but it also shows that you're ready to be there when that milestone arrives.

Cristen: Uh-huh. Another big milestone, depending on how premature the baby is, it might be when the pediatrician says that it's okay for you to hold your baby. When this happens, he or she will probably encourage skin-to-skin contact, which is referred to as kangaroo care. That involves the parent opening up their shirt and holding the baby, who's just wearing a diaper, directly against their chest. Some doctors think that this type of contact can really shorten a baby's stay in the NICU. There's just something about that parent-to-child skin-to-skin contact that's just really good for them.

Molly: Plus, it's the most adorably named baby hold ever, I think.

Cristen: Kangaroo care.

Molly: There's been a recommendation that it may not be the kind of milestones that you wanted to celebrate, holding your child for the first time, feeding it for the first time, but to really take this scary experience and turn it into something that's all part of a kid's baby book. Keep a journal of these moments. Take as many pictures as you would take if everything had happened the way that you planned and just, while you're riding that emotional rollercoaster, try and still have as much celebration in those milestones as you were probably feeling stress and anxiety about them.

Cristen: One of the biggest pieces of advice that the March of Dimes offers for parents who are going through this experience is really trying to arm themselves with as much information about the environment that they're in as possible. Understanding who different people are in the NICU, knowing where they can go if they need to, say, get a cot for the night, knowing what kinds of questions to ask to keep up to date on their baby's status. All of this information can be easily found either on the March of Dimes website or the Discovery Health website because, really, at this point, the health of your baby is sorta out of your hands. You kinda have to let the doctors do their work, which can be, sure, very, very nerve-wracking for a new parent, but if you have a little more knowledge and control over the actual environment, then it might ease that burden a little bit.

Molly: I think that while you say, Cristen, the care is a little bit out of your hands, I do think you can still trust your gut as a parent, as the March of Dimes says. Just keep asking questions, like, "Can I hold the baby today?" Like, "How is the baby doing today?" If you take the initiative to see yourself as part of that team that's caring for your baby, it might ease your stress about, at the end of the day, handing the baby over to a nurse and then going and getting some sleep. Knowing that you can be there as much as you can be there, and having that interaction on the baby's development schedule, I think, can be empowering in its own way. It's still scary. It's still not the way you probably planned it out, but if you see yourself as part of that team, it can be a way to ease that anxiety.

Cristen: I think one thing that's important for parents to understand is that even after a baby leaves the NICU and goes home it isn't necessarily going to be just right back to normal. There are still going to be some extra precautions that you have to take, possibly some extra checkups with the doctor to make sure that the baby is still developing just fine. You might not be able to take the baby out into any public places for a little while, just because their respiratory and immune systems are so sensitive. It might be difficult, even after you get home from the hospital, just seeing mothers with other babies that might have developed with less bumps in the road than you and your child. Acknowledging all those feelings, whether it's from the joy to the anguish, is something that the March of Dimes really urges parents to do.

Molly: So now if you go to that March of Dimes website or if you go to the Discovery Health website, which has the show all lined up with lots of cool clips and articles from NICU doctors, NICU nurses, it provides you all that information about what the experience is like. One thing that I think we've kinda stressed here on Stuff Mom Never Told You, whether we've been talking about eating disorders or relationships, Cristen, is we know that the best resource is our listeners.

Cristen: Uh-huh.

Molly: You guys have experiences with things like this, and so we want to know from you if you've had a child in the NICU, what advice you'd give someone who's going through the same experience. Which of the things that we've said have rung true to you, which sound like utter crap? Once you get through that experience, it is sorta a special vantage point in that you can help other people who are going through this or who might go through this in the future. So let's hear from you guys. If you've had any experiences with the NICU, we'd love to hear them and share them with the rest of our listeners. The address is momstuff@howstuffworks.com and don't forget to check out all of the Baby Week festivities in July.

Cristen: Right and you can also, if you don't want to email, you can also share your thoughts directly with our other listeners on our Facebook fan page at Stuff Mom Never Told You. You can also follow us on Twitter. Send us a tweet if you feel the urge to and, on Twitter, we are Mom Stuff podcast.

Molly: So we look forward to hearing from you guys. In the meantime, we're going to read some emails from people who have written in on previous episodes, such as this one from Erin, on the prenup podcast. She writes that she is an attorney in Texas. Anything from this email is solely in regard to Texas law, but here's a little bit about Texas, and it's probably not unique to anyone else. Erin writes, "Prenups can be a great protection, as you both explained. There are also postnups, at least in Texas, where a married couple can make provisions for their future earnings, debts, purchases, et cetera. One scenario when I would certainly recommend considering a postnup is when one partner stops working outside the home in order to raise children, assist with elderly parents, or other reasons. There are laws that can help protect spouses who choose to stop working during the marriage, but, in Texas, there are certain factors within the law before any protection through the Family Code is triggered. A postnup would also be a great idea if one spouse comes into an unexpected inheritance based on the property laws of the state involved. There could be issues with the nature of the property, meaning it could be divided upon divorce, as well as any earnings or debts from that property. Something else you touched on was dating prenups. In Texas, we use cohabitation agreements. These are very worthwhile, but I don't have enough people asking about them before it's too late. If you're going to live with someone, there will be debts associat ed with utilities, rents, and maybe even credit cards and loans. There are also assets, like, electronics, furniture, maybe even real estate. If either of the cohabitants have children, there will certainly be potential issues. I highly recommend that people talk with an attorney on their estate prior to moving in with someone to find out what things may need to be addressed."

Cristen: All right. Well, I've got an email here from Kate, also about our prenup podcast. She says, "While I can appreciate the always be prepared motto, especially considering such a huge decision as getting married and all that comes with it, it's still impossible to minimize or eliminate risk, especially in dealing with human relationships. Although divorce is frighteningly common these days, I would like to think that in most cases, even with broken hearts and lots of anger involved, people can generally treat each other humanely. That may be hopelessly naïve of me, but it's a risk I'm willing to take. I simply believe that the more we try to wrap and define our lives in legal tape, the less we're actually living and the less profound our relationships become. Things will break down for sure, and you will have to pick up the pieces, but that's really all part of the deal. Also, just a quick thought about the metaphor of the plane crash. Neither you nor the pilot, nor anyone else onboard, has any part in the quote/unquote 'decision' to crash." So thank you, Kate, for your perspective on prenups.

Molly: I have one more, and it's really short, but it's from Doug. It's about the What We Should Call Single Ladies podcast.

Cristen: All right.

Molly: Doug wrote us a fabulous email that says, "I think that fabulous single ladies should be referred to as congermollies."

Cristen: Oh, Doug.

Molly: I don't know -

Cristen: You just scored some brownie points.

Molly: So if you guys want to score brownie points as well, send us an email. Although it does not have to be positive, it can be -

Cristen: Or just send us brownies.

Molly: Or just good thoughts from wherever you live. Again, the email address is momstuff@howstuffworks.com. As Cristen said, we're on Facebook, Twitter, and during the week you can check out all our thoughts on our blog, which is called Stuff Mom Never Told You, and it is at Howstuffworks.com.

Announcer: For more on this and thousands of other topics, visit Howstuffworks.com. Want more Howstuffworks? Check out our blogs on the Howstuffworks.com home page.