Mother’s Day was the first holiday I spent outside the NICU once my son W, a former 29 weeker, was discharged following a 7 week stay. I remember waking early that morning to nurse, and sitting in the rocker in his nursery watching the sun rise and sipping a cup of hot coffee (a life saver, am I right?!) and just thinking, “this is the first time I've felt like a normal mom”; as though if someone who didn't know me could look in on that moment and have no idea the journey that we had been on.
Bonding as a NICU mom (or dad!) is a bit different than the typical parent-baby bond. For me, W was born via emergency cesarean section, weighing in at 2lbs 9oz. I had a few seconds glance at him through the isolette before he was transferred to the NICU with daddy by his side. No skin to skin, no nursing, no snuggles.
Over the next several days my husband and I would be able to reach in and lightly touch W on the top of the head, or briefly hold his hand. It would be 11 days until he was well enough for either of us to hold him for skin to skin.
The weeks to follow would slowly allow us more time holding W, taking part in his care times and diaper changes. Eventually we got to start dressing him, and participating in his baths. The hardest part though, was that it wasn't by our choice. We couldn't just come in in the morning and pick him up and feed him and love on him. I struggled to feel like I was W’s mama, not just another caretaker. I wondered if he knew my hands, if he would remember my smell, had he forgotten my voice?
Over time I was able to hold him more, stroke his tiny cheeks, nurse him and give him his bottles, and I started to feel more like a mom. Once we brought W home and my husband and I could just hold him whenever and for as long as we wanted, the bonding really began to flourish.
I've met several moms who agree that trouble feeling bonded with their baby in the NICU was one of the things that made Mother’s Day hard for them. I often think back to the things that we would do in the NICU to try and let W know we were there and we loved him and I thought I would share some of those things with you below. My hope is they can help remind you that the love you hold for your baby goes beyond what we could ever imagine.
Read, read, read. One of our nurses told me that your baby loves to hear your voice! At first I felt kind of weird just talking to W, so instead I would bring in some of the baby books we had accumulated in his nursery to read to him. Not only did it help pass the time, but it helped me feel more connected and more like a mom.
Journal. If you enjoy writing or think you'd like to have things to look back on once your NICU journey is behind you, consider starting a journal (like Our NICU Journey from Every Tiny Thing!). Each day you can write all the things baby accomplished. Brag about your baby! And if there are bad or hard days, write a note of encouragement to baby. Mama you are your kid’s biggest support and journaling can be a great way to show it (especially years down the road!)
Ask your NICU nurse to talk you through it. NICU nurses are straight up heros. I swear the size of their hearts are too big to be humanly possible. They want nothing more than your baby’s success and part of that is being there for you too! I struggled with feeling like I was just a spectator in the care W received. I started asking for his nurses to show me how I can be more hands on and to talk me through what they did. Somehow having them explain his NG tube pump or how they chose what position to lay him in really helped me feel more connected and involved.
Get Crafty. I know this one is not for everyone, but if you've got any ounce of artistic flair, do a simple craft with your baby. Lots of nurses LOVE crafting and will jump at the chance to be involved, so recruit their help! There are a ton of cute ideas using baby’s hand or footprints. Doing activities together can help you achieve a sense of normalcy.
After the NICU, and over the months and years following, I've come to learn that bonding with W was just different than my expectations had been. The dreams and plans I had surrounding becoming a mom had shifted when we had W.
Surprisingly, what I long for and enjoy the most now about being W’s mom are those times of normalcy, like sitting in that rocker in the early hours of the day with a snoozing baby, hearing him playing with his daddy, and laughing as he gives thanks for the most random things when we pray at dinner time. These normal life moments are the ones I longed for in the NICU, the moments when it all just seems mundane.
So when Mother’s Day rolls around each year, I don't find myself hoping for anything extravagant. Just another normal day with the boy who completed my heart is all I'll ever need (but a cute hand made card is always a sweet surprise too).
Ashlin Stecz is a mom to 2 year old Wyatt, a former 29 weeker. She is a radiologist technologist in orthopedic and trauma surgery but also has a passion for supporting women in their motherhood journeys. She is currently working toward earning her certificate as a lactation counselor and plans to continue by completing her IBCLC. She has a special place in her heart for NICU parents and hopes to spread encouragement to families during the NICU journey. In her spare time she loves playing with her son and husband, reading, and completing DIY home improvement projects.