Making Contact In The NICU

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At the most crucial moments in a newborn's life, mothers wonder if making connections with others in the NICU is the right thing to do.

For nine months, moms-to-be wonder what baby will look like, who she will take after and what she'll grow up to be. And once that little one finally enters the world, we spend those first few days in the hospital staring at, holding, kissing and simply loving our child.

But when your baby ends up in the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU), that instant bonding is delayed: Baby is whisked off to be poked, prodded, tested and monitored -- for days, weeks or months. If you're lucky, you can hold and feed your newborn, but many moms can't even do that, as the baby is hooked up to lifesaving monitors and equipment.I recently spent 10 days in the NICU when my son and daughter came screaming into the world nearly five weeks early. I'd visited other babies in the NICU in the past, so I knew what to expect as far as the vigilant hand washing, hushed voices and whirr of machines. What I didn't expect was the total lack of eye contact, conversation or commiseration with the other moms who also had babies in the NICU, even though I saw them day after day.

And my experience wasn't abnormal.

"A lot of times you don't make conversation because each mom just zeroes in on how her own baby is doing," says Neena Samuel, of Long Island, New York, whose now 10-year-old twins spent 13 days in the NICU. "I remember gazing at a lot of the other babies, but I didn't feel like I could make casual conversation with their parents because the setting was far from casual," she says. "You don't want to ask about babies that are doing worse than your own; it just feels too traumatic because a good outcome isn't a given."


Today, in the NICU, to protect patient privacy, you're asked not to peek at the other babies. For this reason, many moms feel that conversation is off-limits, too. I was given a sheet of paper with information and rules regarding the NICU, including a line that said: "Please respect the privacy of other patients and remain at your own baby's bedside."

But there's no rule saying the parents can't talk to each other, says Lisa Lumley, MS, RNC-NIC; a registered nurse certified in high-risk neonatal nursing who worked in a New York hospital NICU for 13 years.

"If they choose to share their experience and give out private information, that's perfectly acceptable. As registered professional nurses, we can't." That means if a mom asks the nurse, "What's wrong with that baby?," the nurse can't tell her.

So what's with the lack of conversation? "The NICU is a very stressful place and sometimes parents can feel overwhelmed by the wires, beeps and buzzes of the technology. They're emotional, too, which could explain why they're not interacting with other parents," says Lumley. Still, she says she has seen parents become friendly, often those whose babies are in the NICU for months at a time.

That's what happened to April Quartell Erck, of Westfield, N.J. Two years ago, her twins were born 14 weeks early, weighing just 1 pound, 13 ounces each. The babies, now happy, healthy toddlers, spent nearly three months in the NICU.

"During my NICU stay I met another mom whose son shared a room with my children," she says. "She has become one of my dearest friends."

But it didn't happen right away.

"When my children were first born and were in a critical care area of the NICU, interaction between moms wasn't more than a simple smile or nod," she says. "Once my children were moved to a step-down room, the atmosphere was a bit more relaxed, and that's when I saw relationships between moms develop."


Carolyn Sorkin, of Hartford, Connecticut, delivered her twins at 33-and-a-half weeks in 2005, and spent about nine hours a day in the NICU with her son and daughter.

"I don't remember being told not to talk to other parents, but I think we were gently reminded that this was a place of great anxiety, and that we should respect others' preferences," she says.

But Sorkin reached out to her fellow new moms anyway.

"I talked with the other parents because I think we all need support and companionship in such terribly frightening and potentially lonely moments. I just wanted to be a positive presence while we were sharing space. My children were in much better health than theirs, so I really tried to be supportive and upbeat without getting in the way of their privacy or crowing my joy. I'd ask how their daughters were doing but not ask for details unless they indicated a desire to talk."

While new moms in the NICU may not interact much with each other, they often do become close with the nurses caring for their babies.

"The nurses taught me so much, and were really optimistic and supportive, and I was constantly talking to them," says Sorkin.

Lumley agrees: "You become very bonded with the parents because it's a very stressful situation. I had many good relationships with parents. You're watching their baby when they're not there."

Whether or not you make friends while your children are in the NICU, many hospitals have NICU graduation parties, where families bring their thriving children back for a party, year after year. When the stress, worry and tension of those days, weeks or months in the NICU have been forgotten, it may become easier to forge friendships. And they may become some of your most important relationships, as Erck discovered.

"Unlike other non-preemie moms, my friend gets it when others don't," says April Quartell Erck. "Being a NICU mom is very different than the normal mom experience. I didn't get to hold my children until they were more than a week old. I watched my children as they were intubated and extubated. I saw them turn gray, blue and purple. Quite simply, a mom who hasn't been through the NICU has no idea of the pain we experienced."

Today, Erck takes part in the NICU's buddy program, offering support and understanding to new NICU moms.

"I'll never be able to say thank you enough to the NICU nurses who saved my children, so I pay it forward whenever I can."

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