Keeping Your Sanity in the NICU

Self care advice for preemie parents.

Interview with Elizabeth Mehren by Allison Martin

Like most parents of premature infants, my husband and I were thrust unawares into this strange, parallel universe. We had no preparation. One minute I was pregnant: measuring for curtains in the room I thought would be our daughter's nursery -- but not for at least three months. The next day I was in a hospital, madly hoping to prolong this child's gestation, even by any matter of days. I bargained with God, I prayed, I worried, I cried. You know the story. Emily was born two days after the amniotic sac ruptured.

For us, entering the NICU was like landing on another planet. It was strange. It was foreign. Nothing in my life's experience prepared me for what I confronted there.

My first advice to parents, and this is easier said than done, is to be kind to yourself. If your child has a long stay in the NICU, you will find it to be an all-encompassing experience. It drains you, even on good days. So it is very important to conserve energy. This means taking some time to do something JUST FOR YOU, and understanding that this is not a selfish decision. I used to jog from our apartment on one side of New York to my daughter's hospital on the other. The run gave me some distance, and helped work off (temporarily) some of the stress and anxiety. It's impossible to have an entirely normal life when your baby is in an NICU. But some shred of normalcy is critical. Go to a movie -- take a beeper or a cell phone. Those two hours will help distract you, even briefly. I recommend a comedy. (My husband says I cried through the only movie we went to at that time, so I guess I didn't practice what I am preaching!)

Another piece of advice: Don't waste your time trying to explain your baby's medical condition to people who can't understand it. Prematurity is way too scary for people who haven't been near it. They think they understand. But they don't. You will be frustrated, maybe even insulted and certainly disappointed if you try to give outsiders a crash course in Prematurity IA. I kept having well-meaning people ask me if I had sought second medical opinions. For what? To find out if her weight was really 760 grams??? It was strange. These people meant well, but they just couldn't "get it."

In the NICU, I kept a journal. I wrote in it every night. Every child always wants to know "what was I like as a baby?" -- and since Emily's beginnings were dramatic, I wanted to be able to share the experience with her in detail. I thought I would give her the journal when she grew up. The journal was detailed, because at night I wrote and wrote. That's how I was able to summon up some obscure but important details for the book, such as the peculiar frequency of the telephone ring in the NICU. To this day, when I hear a ring with that pitch, it goes right up my backbone and sends me back to the NICU.

I also advocate getting as much information as possible. Reach out to whatever sources you can find. Inform yourself! Though you can't master or control this situation, you can learn about it. The information helps a parent to feel some semblance of control over an otherwise uncontrollable situation. More advice: Be cognizant at all times of just how stressful this experience is.

Prematurity can wreak havoc on marriages. Ideally, it will bring you closer together. But in the short term, it puts everyone on edge. You have no idea how many women have told me that their marriages suffered the same tension that my husband and I went through. I wish we had known at that time that this was predictable. Luckily, we survived. If we had known what to expect, we might have been able to look at each other and understand what was going on a little better.

Elizabeth Mehren is the author of the book Born Too Soon. She is also the national correspondent for the Los Angeles Times.