We spent a grand total of 17 days in the NICU at the University of Colorado Anschutz following the birth of miss Eleyna. I’ll be honest, I had to really dig to write this post because those 17 days were a whirlwind of sleepless nights, 3 hour alarms, commuting to and from the NICU and home, and just trying to adjust. I wish so much that I would’ve kept a journal for every day that we were in the NICU so I could remember every little victory and hardship we encountered in there. As it is, the days are all blurred together and it doesn’t seem like we were there that long, thankfully. A lot of families spend hundreds of days in the NICU, and NICU parents count every single one of them, so I’m grateful our stay was relatively short.
Our first night in the NICU was directly following Ellie’s birth. She was born at 9pm, and her and Juny went to the NICU fairly shortly thereafter. I followed after I was cleared by my doctors, a few hours later. Time had no relevance at that point. It could’ve been 2pm or 6am and I wouldn’t have known the difference. The first 24 hours were spent learning how to breastfeed, and learning how to do temps and weights, and figuring out what all the different monitors read and what their beeps meant. The nurses got her hooked up to heart and oxygen monitors, an IV, and a feeding tube. We took dozens of photos and called and texted family. I don’t think Juny and I slept until the next night. We were on a feeding schedule, so at the 12/3/6/9 hours I would try breastfeeding, and then she was fed donor breast milk through her tube while I used a breast pump. The first 48 hours are a complete blur to me, up until the 3rd day, January 6th, when I got discharged from the hospital.
The morning I was to be discharged from the hospital was bittersweet. I spent 16 days yearning to be home and sleep in my own bed and be with my family, but on that morning the reality of having to leave my tiny new baby behind and go home without a baby or a belly weighed heavy on my heart. We packed up my hospital room, signed all of our discharge papers, and did the noon feed for Ellie, and then we loaded the car with the last 16 days of our life, and drove home. I fought back tears the entire way home, the gut wrenching sadness in the pit of my stomach and the weight in my heart were at odds with the excitement I felt to see my other kids and just be in my home again. When your baby is in the NICU there is a phone line you can call 24 hours a day to get updates and check in on your little one. I checked in before bed and the nurses let me know that she was doing great, they upped her feed amount and took out her IV. They assured me she was just sleeping, but I was sad that I was already missing out on things.
On Ellie’s 4th day I arrived at the NICU for my daily visit to find her in her very first outfit! I was really sad that I didn’t get to pick it, but excited because she was regulating her own body temp now and earned the right to wear the teeny tiny baby clothes we had for her. My milk finally came in, too, so I was able to bring in my own pumped milk to be fed to her in her tube, which was the most amazing feeling!!
On the 5th day Ellie’s nurses decided to put her under the bili-lights for jaundice. This in itself is pretty common, even for full term babies, but it meant that we weren’t allowed to do skin-to-skin cuddling like we had been doing. We could only take her out of the isolette for feeds every 3 hours, which freaking SUCKED, but it was only to help her, so of course we dealt with it. The nurses tried to make it fun by drawing little eyelashes on her eye mask, which I thought was adorable. The blue lights lasted for 2 days and it was rough because she was also having some oxygen problems and we discussed putting her on oxygen. Luckily that never ended up having to happen. I spent the time that I couldn’t hold her putting together gift baskets for the labor and delivery nurses and the NICU nurses because I was so incredibly thankful for the people that were helping make me feel at home.
By day 7 the NICU life was starting to wear on me. I was exhausted, hormonal, I was struggling with high blood pressure and swollen ankles on top of engorged and clogged breasts and I could just feel the weight of it all on my shoulders every day building up, and I was struggling to stay strong for my baby. All I wanted was to bring my baby home and get life back to normal. I was so incredibly thankful that Ellie was out of the bili-lights when I visited on this day so I could cuddle her and find my happy place. I also had some help from the lactation consultants and they introduced us to a nipple shield. We had been having a bit of a hard time since my milk came in because her mouth was so small and her suction wasn’t very strong yet, so having the nipple shield help us so much was a huge relief!
The next few days was a lot of cuddling, taking sleeping baby photos, driving back and forth, and just trying to do whatever I could to get Ellie to the point that she could come home! I had developed a pumping strategy to save me some time while driving back and forth from home to the NICU and I felt like a multi-tasking goddess! Through all of this we were still trying to keep our home life as normal as possible for the other kids, so we took the girls to see Jumanji on day 9. Ellie and I were really struggling to breastfeed because she was so easily worn out. She was doing a lot better with the bottled feeds, but the nurses kept assuring us that she would get better, it just took time. They kept reminding me that she should still be in my tummy being fed through her umbilical cord, and time was all she needed.
On her 10th day she did her first full feed without using the feeding tube and we were elated!! Taking all of her feeds by breast or bottle was one of the milestones she had to reach in order to go home, along with passing a car seat test, regulating her own body temperature, not having any oxygen episodes, and gaining weight, and she was doing almost all of those things, so this was a big victory for us today! But, like a lot of things in the NICU, it was one step forward and two steps back, because on her 11th day she was too tired to nurse or take a bottle, and on the 12th day she took 2 bottles from dad and then slept through another feed. I was so incredibly discouraged because she would do really good with dad giving her a bottle in the morning, and then I would get there and try to breastfeed and she’d be too tired and we would struggle and end up tube feeding. In hindsight I see it more clearly now that she WAS getting it, she was slowly getting better, but in the thick of it I felt like a failure and contemplated giving up breastfeeding and just pumping to give her bottles so we could just go home already. I felt like it was my fault that we were still there because I was so adamant about breastfeeding and she was having such a hard time with it. I stayed home without visiting Ellie in the NICU for the first time on day 12. It was a really hard decision for me, but I was at the point that I was crying almost nonstop and feeling really low, and I knew I needed a break. I needed a “me” day. So I stayed home and got some chores done and did my normal day to day stuff, and it really helped me feel better, even though I cried off and on all day long. I was reassured that Juny and Melea both visited her while I stayed home and sent me videos to try to lift my spirits.
When I went back on day 13 I worked with a lactation consultant again and we came up with a plan to pump for a few minutes before nursing so that Ellie didn’t have to work so hard for my milk to letdown. It helped a lot and they let us schedule our discharge class for day 15. They also graduated her out of her isolette and into what we call the big girl crib! This was a big step to doing things as you would at home, so it was a big deal! But on day 14 we were still struggling with getting her to take all of her feeds by mouth. I was still feeling like a failure and I was still feeling like I was letting everyone down by not getting her home fast enough.
On day 15 the doctors decided to let us try to go ad-lib, which means feeding her based on her cues and her awake times instead of going by the 3 hour schedule we had been on. I remember feeling so confused because this is usually something they do when feeding is going better, and we were still struggling so much; even the nurses were a little confused at why they okayed it already. But they took out her feeding tube and we fed on demand. They told us that if she did well with the ad-lib we could be going home in a few days!! So I went ahead with taking our discharge class, and hung out in the NICU with her for the day. While we were chilling that day, there was a film crew in the NICU getting footage of the nurses for a documentary about the person that first started working with preemies. Ellie got to be featured with one of our doctors in the film, and they emailed it to me a few months after we went home. I was able to stay the night in one of the hospital “family rooms” this night, so the nurses called my room whenever Ellie woke up to eat, and ad-lib went AMAZINGLY well!! When I woke up and went to the NICU on day 16 the doctors informed us that we would be bringing Eleyna home the next day as long as she passed the car seat challenge, and I cried happy tears while sending out the good news texts!!!! I was so confused how I went from wanting to give up and struggling and feeling like we were never going to bring her home, to going ad-lib and getting the ok to go home in a matter of two days, but whatever, I certainly wasn’t complaining!! The nurses had been telling me all along that one day it would all just click for Ellie and she would just get it, and that’s exactly what happened, and I was so so so grateful for my incredible tiny baby!
The morning of day 17 – which was one year ago today, and also my mom’s birthday – we were so antsy to get the car seat challenge started!! It was the longest 90 minutes ever waiting to see if she’d pass and we’d be able to go home. I walked around the NICU and took pictures so I could remember our time spent there. We got lunch. We started packing up our things and getting the car ready. Then, after 90 minutes of anxiously waiting, we got the news that Ellie had passed her car seat challenge and would be discharged that afternoon!!!!!!!!!! I cannot even put into words the elation, relief, and happiness that I felt hearing the words “you get to bring your baby home today.” This time when I cried, they were tears of joy – tears of relief – tears of gratitude – tears of accomplishment.
We were so happy to get home and introduce the big girls to their new baby sister finally! They were just as excited to have us all home, I think. Although our time in the NICU was mild compared to a lot of NICU stories out there, our time there still scarred my heart. I think I will always have mixed feelings about our time in the NICU – a mix of dread and fear; gratitude and joy. There is a weird combination of fondness for the memories we made while there, along with maybe a little PTSD. Now that we’re celebrating one year of being home, I can look back at Ellie’s birth experience with mostly good feelings and a ton of gratitude that she’s home and healthy and strong.