We had a NICU journey, my husband and babies and I.
I never thought that would be a part of my life. I never thought I would have to leave my babies at a hospital while I went home.
For years, I had dreamed of “coming home”. A coming home outfit for the baby, a coming home outfit for me, family all around celebrating the homecoming of the new little one. When I was a little girl, I remember looking at pictures of my mama bringing me home from the hospital, and longing so desperately for a day when I would do that with my own child.
NICU is… hard. There’s no way around that.
I had to break down all my ideas of birth and newborn and new babies, and rebuild them around those four letters–NICU. I had to come to terms with the fact that my babies’ first moments would be lived in the dark, sterility of the hospital rooms rather than the comfort and vibrancy of our home.
My babies were born at 33 weeks, weighing only 3lb 9oz and 4lb 5oz. Because I had gone into labor so spontaneously, I had only been given the steroid shot to develop their lungs five hours before they were born. One of my babies had IUGR, the other had severe jaundice, both were in need of lung support.
We had a long way to go.
Just moments after birth, my babies were whisked away from the delivery room and off into the NICU ward. I was able to meet them for the first time about 2 hours later. There wasn’t much to meet. They were already hooked up to feeding tubes, monitoring wires, and the enormous c-paps that covered most of their heads and faces. We were allowed to touch them, oh so softly, but we couldn’t stroke them. Their skin was so thin and sensitive that stroking was painful. All we could do was simply lay our hands on their bodies and feel their skin. And how tiny their bodies were, my small hands covered them entirely.
What I remember most about that first time I met my babies was their eyes. Barely open, dark in the dimness, searching. Soul searching newborn eyes, only just visible under all the wires and contraptions that were supporting their lives.
I was lucky. I got to hold both of my babies that first day they were born! Precious skin to skin with my tiny little loves. Those moments of holding them so close to me helped us all to heal from the trauma of the last several hours.
Postpartum is hard, emotionally. The hormones are intense, and your body is tired and strange and different. It’s hard to feel like yourself, postpartum. You’ve spent nine months growing a perfect human, or in my case, two. And then suddenly, you are yourself again. Your child is separate from you, and you have a new identity as a mother. It’s wonderful and beautiful, but there is also an element of grief and loss. The profound closeness of pregnancy is over, and you can never have it back. The feelings of separation and loss were intense for me. Not only was I no longer carrying my babies, I couldn’t even hold them without the help of a whole staff of nurses.
The first three days of my babies lives, the nurses focused on stabilization.
At this time, they were receiving 1-2 ml of milk per feed every three hours. Their feeding tubes were wired through their mouths and down their throats, their c-paps were placed in their noses.They were also being given glucose, lipids, and TPN through IV’s. These IV’s were replaced every day. Eli’s was placed directly into his stomach, Finns was placed in his foot. On their second day of life, both babies started to experience jaundice. They were placed under bright blue lights, wearing little foam glasses to cover their eyes. This treatment was one of the hardest parts for us all. The babies hated their glasses, and I hated not being able to hold them.
When my babies were three days old, I was discharged from the hospital and had to leave them for the first time.
Even now, nine months later, I can’t forget the trauma of this moment, when I had to leave my babies in the hospital. I cried when we tenderly kissed each of them goodbye. I cried when we walked out of the hospital. I cried on the drive home. I cried all night, in between pumping sessions. I cried while I called every three hours to see how my babies were doing.
We woke up early the next morning and drove back to NICU in order to be their for Finn’s 7:30 am feed. And we stayed all day, until around 5 pm when we drove back home. This was our schedule for the next 18 days–NICU all day, our home all night. I was pumping every three hours and recovering from a twin pregnancy and unmedicated birth. It was a physically and emotionally draining time.
Over the next week, our babies were slowly weaned off their IV’s and lung support while their breastmilk feeds were increased.
By the time Finn and Eli were one week old, although they were still being gavached for 100% of their feeds, they no longer needed any breathing or nutritional support through their IV’s! This was a huge benchmark for us. It meant three things: they were ready to start learning to nurse, they could have baths, and they could start wearing clothes! We gave them baths on their week birthday, and it was such a special experience to wash them and dress them for the first time. Baths always make NICU babies sleepy, so we didn’t start working on feeding skills until then next day.
Then the real work began.
Over the next week and a half, my babies and I had a lot of learning to do. As a first time mama, I had no idea how to get a baby to latch! And learning on a teeny tiny NICU baby is not easy. We had to use a nipple shield and a lot of pillows for support. It was so hard, but with the help of the amazing lactation consultants and NICU staff we made progress. We also learned how to bottle feed babies safely, how to burp preemies, and all the ins and outs of baby feeding.
During this time, Finn and Eli were mainly responsible for staying awake. Their feeds were up to 30ml for Finn and 45ml for Eli. It’s a tiny amount of milk, but it was hard for them to stay away long enough to drink it all! Whatever they could not drink was given to them through the feeding tube.
We were getting close to bringing them home, but there were still a few steps.
First, they had to graduate to an ad lib schedule. In order to go ad lib, they had to be awake and ready to eat for every feed, and they had to consume 80% of each of their feeds by bottle or nursing. Then, they had to thrive on an ad lib schedule for at least three days, with continued weight gain and no breathing apneas.
My babies were pretty good little fighters. Eight days after they started learning to eat, they both graduated to ad lib. We had a few scares over the next three days. Finn almost had an apnea, and Eli almost didn’t gain enough weight. We had to use some convincing words to persuade the doctors to let our babies come home. But by then, I knew in my heart that my babies were ready to come home. I could see their progress, I was comfortable with them, and knew I could take care of them more efficiently at home than in NICU. So I was willing to fight a little bit to bring our babies home!
So exactly three days after going on ad lib, and 18 days after birth, and one day after my first mother’s day, we brought our babies home from NICU.
It wasn’t the coming home I’d looked forward to all my life. But it was so much more. I wasn’t just bringing home one baby. We were bringing home two perfect preemies, to beautiful NICU warriors. And it was perfect and whole and complete. I’ll never forget that feeling of being home. Home at last, one family.
And in case you’re curious, Finn and Eli thrived at home! They slept well, they rapidly began to eat more and more, and their weight gain was even better than it had been in NICU!