Guest post by Sarah Blunkosky, M.A., RYT 500, R-PYT, R-CYT is an integrative education consultant, certified peer-breastfeeding counselor, and registered Accessible yoga instructor specializing in family, children’s, special needs, and prenatal/postpartum movement/embodiment. She serves clients in Northern Virginia and travels for service appointments, conferences, and workshops with local studios and her company, Learning Heroine LLC.
You can find her on Instagram and Facebook sharing her mission: Set learning free. When she isn’t homeschooling her kids or teaching yoga, you can find her writing articles and working on a book to assist people in freeing obstacles in learning during their prenatal/postpartum, parenting, and life journeys.
Whether you had advanced notice or things did not go as originally planned, a post-birth stay in the hospital can be unsettling. Perhaps you get released but baby doesn’t: what now?
Let’s explore some ideas for reframing a post-birth stay, some things to ponder, some feelings to process. No matter what the outcome, we can still focus on the positive, the present.
Congratulations! You just had a baby, and now, things are not going according to the traditional storybook. This happened to me with my first baby. She was two years early as my husband and I recall. We always wanted kids but a surprise in the middle of my graduate program was not the original plan, but we were excited and supportive once the initial shock eased into the endless learning opportunities. Our baby girl came one day later than her due date, unmedicated, at our local hospital with a Level 3 Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU). Her AGPAR assessment scores were well and the first day was a blurry dream where I thought she was just a sleepier breastfeeding baby. I also thought she was the most gorgeous baby ever, but what ancestors gave her the beautiful slanted eyes (my husband and I were both descended from Europeans). Why did the nurses speak in hushed tones and tiptoe around us? Why did so many doctors assess her? On Day 2, our new pediatrician who I had only met briefly while pregnant at our interview, arrived on her day off to deliver news with the neonatologist: “Your baby likely has Down syndrome and has exaggerated newborn jaundice and dehydration. She needs to go to the NICU now.” Then we began a new journey, parents of a NICU baby.
There were lots of feelings. There were feelings of disorientation in healing my own body after birth and also pumping regularly for a little baby and learning to take care of her wrapped in cords and monitors. I could tell you how surreal it all is. I could tell you how grateful I was for loving nurses and a spare room to “room in” at so I could visit my baby girl more often.
The greatest things I could share though would be how to step into this role as a NICU parent, and no matter what outcomes, find purposefulness and grace of learning a new role and finding ways to excel at it.
Welcome to your new role:
Your mission is parenting, and we’re adding you to the team of specialists taking care of your new baby. Gather your tools for the job:
laptop (if someone can bring you one it’ll help when typing and save eyes)
blue light eyeglasses (worth every penny and reduces my screen headaches for sure)
Friends and Family (Who will listen to your needs and boundaries. A stressed-out neighbor should knit something at home and not bring her negative energy into the loop.)
Patient Advocate (anytime you don’t feel that you and your baby are being represented, call for the patient advocate to help smooth out communication with the team)
Lactation Consultant (If you choose to breastfeed, chest feed, use a supplemental nursing system, pump breastmilk) these can be key helpers for your team and also for your long-term lactation care if you are pumping for a few months with a preemie. They can also help fit you properly for a good breast pump (hospital grade does make a HUGE difference), especially ensuring that the flanges fit around the areolas properly (no pinching allowed). They can also help monitor you for mastitis (from stress and being worn out are common triggers), and nipple traumas (when latching is a challenge, the nipples can take wear if helping techniques aren’t employed often).
Pediatrician (mostly for outpatient but if you are back and forth, then they also might make hospital rounds, etc.)
Neonatologist (usually the prime director of baby’s care and works with nurses and listens to input from you and lactation to guide baby along)
Other Specialists (you will meet them or hear about them as they join baby’s care team).
Let’s say, baby is now entering the NICU. The first notes to take are what the specialists tell you (if they are able to tell you yet). You can record everything on your phone (keep a charger around always) and you can also jot down key notes and terms to look up later.
Make a note of the NICU schedule, especially shift changes. Hospitals have a rhythm and the faster you learn the schedule and adapt to the schedule as best you can, the more opportunities you will have and the better informed you will be. Hospitals are busiest during the day and more specialists will talk to you and interact with you then, or before shift changes (usually every 8,10, or 12 hours for nurses, sometimes doctors are every 12 or 24 hours). Schedules are also different if you are in a smaller local hospital system or a city’s university teaching hospital. Note the rules and visiting hours of the NICU. I struggled during shift changes because it was usually an hour that I was not allowed in, as nurses and doctors were updating the new shifts and were not to be disturbed. I learned if I pumped then or ate then, I could maximize my time with baby.
Ponder adapting sleep to hospital schedules. Pump more in the day if you can, and sleep for longer stretches at night if you can, to help yourself heal and to preserve your strength for parenting. If you have to return to work, then start navigating what might work best for your schedule and don’t look back! We do the best we can. Fill out and update forms with visitors allowed to come into the NICU with your signed permissions. Also, ensure that no one with illness comes near you or the NICU. That relative who complains about the handwashing and sanitizer, send them lots of pictures and tell them other things they can do. Boundaries can be great and loving for all.
Collect blankets or clothes worn from your baby in the NICU before they get washed so you can take baby’s smell with you everywhere, especially if you need to pump. Ponder showering or bathing minimally with little or no perfumes so baby and you can mix all your smells together for more primal and easier bonding. Make notes of the names of nurses and staff and offer kindness and gratitude at every opportunity. This goodness will spread into your baby with their care and is a way that you can parent, from however far.
Self-care is essential to manage here. Wear flip flops or layer towels on the bottom of the shower and take a shower every day, maybe even right before you tuck yourself in for a long sleep stretch before it’s time to pump or go to the NICU to feed baby. Take care of your skin, brush your teeth and hydrate. Put on clean underwear and clothes. Charge your phone or send last-minute updates to friends and family before turning in for a while. After several hospital stays with my eldest through the years, I’ve found that it’s super hard to sleep during the day at hospitals. The staff does most of their chatting, visits, and busyness primarily during the sun hours. Even if you’re a night owl, try to adapt to the hospital rhythm as fast as you can. Have friends or family bring your favorite blanket or pillowcase (change and wash often) and soft pajamas.
For meditation times throughout the day and night, I close my eyes and try to listen to my breath as I inhale and exhale. I find dhristhi, a focal point in the room, and listen to my breath and witness the sounds, smells, and air around me.
Finding stillness in moments can energize you and help carry you out of the fear energy zones you might fall into around the hospital energies. Meditating into witness consciousness, where we try to witness and watch any thought forms arise and observe them around us, can help one connect to your spiritual or non-religious grounding practice and help nourish you for the long journey. Reflection and peaceful practices can help you roll with what unfolds and find purpose, no matter the outcomes.
Feed yourself nourishing foods and drinks. Limit your morning coffee, tea, or caffeinated drink. The HEPA filtration and complex humidity-controlled HVAC systems in hospitals can be more dehydrating then home and you cannot open the windows for fresh air. Drink more water. Use the bathroom frequently, as this reduces urinary tract infections and also helps destress your kidneys and adrenal glands, key areas of energy and detox. Once every few days, use a scrub salt to exfoliate and deep clean your skin. Use a moisturizer mask to hydrate from the hospital air. Bring the spa into your face, no matter where you are. Put lip balm on before you sleep.
The hospital cafeteria will have several fast food options (many hospitals have corporate franchise restaurants in residence) and often salad and soup bars. More selections are available during the day and early evenings. Nighttime offerings are usually fast food places (many close after 9 or 10), or the all-night convenience shop that has maybe a few packaged salads and sandwiches. I found that a protein and heavier carbohydrate breakfast and lunch worked well for my hospital stays, followed by a lighter dinner that because it was lighter, digested easier and didn’t keep me awake too late. Eat more fiber and supplement if you need to. When so many specialists coming and going, you might be ready to take a longer bathroom visit and in pops a team of four doctors and attendants. Regular elimination energies can be disrupted, so try to go often when you can and take extra fiber to help when you need it. Ask if relatives can bring a travel cooler to you with fresh foods and snacks. Often, there is a guest refrigerator where you can label and store your foods and access 24/7 during baby’s stay. Some guest stations also offer free water, juices, coffee, and sometimes snacks on the ward. Hospital guest support charities such as the Ronald McDonald House, also often stock guest relaxation rooms with foods for relatives and toys for siblings. If your three-day stay turns into a more long-term projected stay, then the hospital can connect you directly with charities or long-term residence options. Inquire at any time. The Joint Commission, an agency that monitors and reviews hospitals nationwide for safety and compliance, is a helpful resource for choosing hospitals and medical professionals to place your baby under care with. If discussions of transfer come up, visit the Joint Commission to review potential future residencies. Also, feel free to contact specialists in your child’s care at other institutions for second opinions or other treatment options while you are in care. You have agency and choices. Designate a trusted friend or family member to help you to do some research! People like to feel helpful and with tiredness, fresh eyes are always welcome.
Create rhythms of cleaning and clearing. Even when I am tired, rhythms and routines nurture me. When you are settled into the baby’s room, create cleaning and clearing rituals. If you are allowed to, bring in special hats for your baby, blankets, or toys (with approval). Put gloves on and take the surface cleaner wipes located in the room and wipe down the rails of baby’s crib, the remote for the television (if you are boarding in a room with baby there is often a tv, foldout chair, place for valuables/storage, and tray tables that foodservice lays the delivered food on). The surface wipes are industrial and not meant for skin, so wear the gloves, and wipe down the surfaces that are frequently touched by staff: rails, buttons, remotes, general surfaces that collect droplets from air, etc.). While I love natural products, I use the hospital wipes because those are custom-designed for the hospital pathogens. Feel free to campaign for cleaner hospital chemical use—a noble and worthy cause.
Find what rituals and tasks you are allowed to do with baby and build your days around times with baby. Perhaps you are allowed to hold baby for certain times or bathe baby in the afternoons, structure the day around these tasks. For the in-between, try to nap or rest as much as possible, especially if baby has a long-term stay ahead, often common for babies preparing for heart surgeries or other longer-care procedures. Find your favorite books (adult or children’s) and share your voice with baby, even if you cannot hold baby. Ask if you can record your voice reading books or singing lullabies to be shared with your baby while you are gone (especially if you have to return to work and baby is still in treatment).
Take a daily photo of your baby, several even! Celebrate every milestone and get extra hugs for times when things are going the way you want them too. Talk about any and everything with your baby. Sometimes I reach a place where I don’t know if it is night or day, what day of the week I’m in (often I get stuck in Tuesday when it’s actually Thursday), and words start feeling jumbled and difficult. Scale it down. Describe what you see to baby. Tell baby stories of the preemie next to them. Tell baby what you ate for lunch and what is going on with your dog at home. I started feeling hard on myself when Josie was in the incubator and I kept jumbling the words to “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.”
I allowed myself to cry and tell her this was so hard and not what I wanted for her. Then I remembered other songs I heard from my momma: “This Old Man” and “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star.” Then I told her how much I loved her, how precious she was, and I shared all my healing prayers and intentions for her. She didn’t need to hear the perfect lyrics.
Just know, what I found, is that by sharing all the goodness I had, in the songs I made up and the tiny details and ephemera of the days I could chat with her about, it was enough.
You too, here, whether in hospital or out, you are enough as well. Congratulations, you got this job!
Read another great post by Sarah about Postpartum minimalism here.