Louie stayed in the NICU at the hospital for 27 days.
Part II of this post was always going to be the most difficult to write. (You can check out Part I here.) Not only was Louie’s hospital stay the most challenging part of motherhood so far, but I also just have the most to say about it. Some of this chapter might fall a bit out of chronological order, but I’ll do my best to make it flow.
When the baby arrived six weeks early on New Year’s Day, we hadn’t decided on a name yet. But I heard that after you go through labor, your partner is so impressed by your insane goddess strength that they let you pick the name. So, after he was born, I said to my husband, Joe, “I think I know what his name is.” I suggested Louie Max, and he agreed. Joe tweaked it to officially be Louis, and he decided between Maxwell and Maximus for the middle name. And Louie Max he is.
So, why did it happen? Why did my water break six weeks early? Well, we’ll never really know for sure because unfortunately, we know relatively little about the female anatomy and the science of pregnancy, in general. All of my tests came back normal — I didn’t have any infections, there was nothing wrong with my uterus, cervix, or placenta, and they didn’t determine that anything had gone wrong with my pregnancy.
But we have one theory. Louie was five and a half pounds at birth which is really big for his gestational age of just under 34 weeks. They said he probably would have been over ten pounds if he were full-term. Joe is six-foot-four, so this makes sense. Also, although I have a plump booty, my hips are kinda narrow, and the delivery doctor said that it was a notably tight squeeze getting the baby out. So, maybe my body knew that I couldn’t have delivered a baby bigger than five and a half pounds. Mother Nature is a weird lady.
Or, I don’t know … it could have been stress. In November, I started working as a part-time contributing writer for Elite Daily on top of all my freelance writing. To be honest, it was too much work for being eight months pregnant, but I didn’t think it would cause preterm labor.
Anyway, after delivering the baby, Louie was immediately taken to the NICU. Luckily, he didn’t need any help breathing, but he did get a feeding tube which he’d have until he learned to eat by mouth. Also, he would need to be fed with either donor breast milk or formula until my milk came in. I chose donor milk.
Right away, a nurse came in the delivery room to try to squeeze some colostrum out of my boobs — and what do you know? We got some! Although he was born six weeks early, my body was still able to produce milk. A lot of things weren’t right about the situation, but somehow, nature worked some of it out.
The next day, Joe and I went home.
We got a lot of mixed information about how long Louie might need to stay in the hospital. This is no one’s fault, really, but it got our hopes up about the possibility of a short stay. A couple of nurses said that it could be just a week, so the first few days, we had a pep in our step. We were on a high from becoming parents, and we were optimistic that his stay in the NICU would be short.
We were wrong.
We visited the hospital three times per day. Why did we do this? For a few reasons. I took the month of January off, but Joe worked most of the time that Louie was in the hospital. Usually, we’d drive up once in the morning before Joe went to work, once in the afternoon, and once in the evening after dinner. I needed to pump milk at least eight times per day to keep up with Louie’s feedings and to make sure that I would be producing enough when he came home. So, in between each visit, I would pump once or twice at home. Yes, I could have stayed at the hospital all day, but driving back and forth is just what was most comfortable and what worked best for us. Why three visits instead of two or one? Well, we wanted to be there for Louie, and I also needed to be around him enough to stimulate my milk production.
It was a lot of driving, and it kind of felt like Groundhog Day, but three times per day. And like I said, at first we were into it. But after a week or so of him being there, it began to wear on us.
One of the worst parts about having a baby in the NICU is the cords. Oh my God, the cords! For most of his stay, Louie had a feeding tube in his nose and three other cords attached to his body to monitor his heart rate, respiratory rate, and oxygen. If any of those three numbers got too high or too low, the monitor above him would beep loudly. It wasn’t necessarily an emergency when this happened because these levels can rise and fall when a baby cries and coughs. But imagine the spike in your cortisol levels when your baby cries and the monitor above him starts binging hella loudly because his heart rate went above 200 beats per minute. Then imagine trying to change your baby’s diaper when he’s hooked up to all these cords, and you’re afraid to move him the wrong way lest his feeding tube accidentally gets pulled out of his nose all while other babies’ monitors are beeping incessantly in the background. Dude. It was the worst.
My sister had her baby boy on January 11, and I was definitely a little jealous. Not in a bad way — I was so happy for them, of course — but I wanted to be home with my family, and I couldn’t have that yet. That same day, they moved Louie to a new pod that was less private and way louder than the last one. Also, he wasn’t really progressing with his eating at that point. Needless to say, I was down that day.
Having a child in the hospital is a mindfuck for a number of reasons. For one thing, you have to go through all these barriers to even touch your kid. We had to drive up to the hospital, tell the guy at the parking garage where we were headed, park, go into the hospital, take an elevator up to the floor he was on, page the receptionist in the NICU and state why we were there, get buzzed in, sign in at the front desk, put our phones in plastic baggies, go to the pod where Louie was staying, wash our hands up to our elbows, and then finally we could interact with him. Also, every time we needed to use the bathroom or get water or food, we had to sign out, get buzzed out, get buzzed back in, and sign back in.
The NICU is super high-security and very strict about cleanliness, and for good reason. But it made everything hard, and it made having visitors even harder.
On top of all these barriers to get to your child, you have to go against some of your instincts about people touching your kid without your permission. You know when moms talk about how strangers will just reach out and touch their babies and how angry this makes them feel? Well, in the NICU, this is happening nonstop all day, every day, and you can’t do anything about it. Yes, they have reasons to be touching your baby — they are providing medical care, duh — but like I said, it goes against your instincts to allow it. Also, you start to feel less and less like the parent when you’re in there. They wouldn’t even let us see his medical records until he was released. We’re his parents. What the fuck?
One time, they moved Louie to a new pod that was upstairs from his current pod. Joe asked the nurse if he could hold Louie in the elevator on our way up, and they told him no. Think about that for a minute. Not only did my husband have to ask to carry his child, but his request was declined.
You have to learn to tolerate groups of people coming in and out with clipboards and laptops talking about your kid like you’re not even there, making decisions about your child like you’re not the parent, like you’re not in charge. It’s a mindfuck. I don’t have a better word for it. It really starts to mess with you.
I will note that their strict rules make sense for a lot of the babies in there. Some of them were micro-preemies in incubators, others needed immediate surgery after birth, and many were hooked up to some serious equipment for various reasons. One day, I watched a whole team of doctors and nurses take a solid two hours to move a baby that needed heart surgery. However, as they told us multiple times, Louie was the healthiest baby in there. On one hand, this put things in perspective for us. Yes, our child was in the hospital, but we knew he would be home with us soon and grow up to be a hearty kid. We saw a lot of harrowing cases in the NICU, and we are so, so thankful for Louie’s health. On the other hand, it was frustrating because it seemed like he didn’t really need to be in there.
We started getting attached to some of the other babies in the NICU too, especially those who were roommates with Louie for part of the time. We got invested in their stories — their weight gain, their progress with eating, and updates on when they’d get sent home.
There were good days and bad days, good visits and bad visits.
Some days, we’d leave the hospital all excited because Louie made progress on his eating. Other days, we’d drive up there only to have him sleep the entire time. Two steps forward, one step back.
Learning to breastfeed in the hospital was a little obnoxious. It was hard because he was a preemie and didn’t have all of his eating instincts yet. But also, every time I breastfed him, we had to undress him beforehand, weigh him, wrap him up, try to feed him, unwrap him, and weigh him again to see how many milliliters of milk he got all while navigating our way around the cords and constant beeping. People were always poking at him, checking his latch, and talking to us while I tried to breastfeed. Babies get distracted when their moms talk to people while breastfeeding! That’s totally a thing, and it was inhibiting our progress.
It was agonizing having our baby in the hospital and being away from him every night. We did our fair share of crying, but sometimes we had to laugh. Louie had jaundice during his first week of life, so they put him under the blue lights for a couple of days. They also started fortifying his milk with extra protein and calories, so we made fun of him and joked that he only wanted to be in his tanning bed and drink protein shakes.
Another way we coped with the anguish was that every night on our way home from our last hospital visit of the day, we stopped to get dessert. Every night — I’m not kidding. We went to Dairy Queen sometimes. Other times, we’d go to 7-Eleven and get Slurpees or just some candy. It helped, believe it or not.
After a couple of weeks, we stopped guessing when he’d be coming home.
His progress with eating was slow, but it was also totally normal and expected for his gestational age. Most babies don’t pick up on the suck-swallow-breath eating technique until about 37 weeks gestation. Our family and close friends would text a few times a week to see how we were doing and ask when Louie would be coming home. We appreciated the support and would have probably reached out just as often if our loved ones had gone through the same thing. But after a while, it wore on us to tell people again and again that Louie was still in the hospital, and that we didn’t know exactly when he would be coming home.
Basically, he wouldn’t be sent home until he could eat a sufficient amount by mouth, either by bottle or breast. But he was being tube-fed every three hours, so we were concerned that on a full stomach, he didn’t have the incentive to eat by mouth. Also, when I breastfed him, we weren’t allowed to work at it for more than 30 minutes at a time and could only try during one of these three-hour intervals. So, sometimes, we’d run out of time just when he was waking up and getting into it. They’d make us stop because they didn’t want him to burn too many calories trying to eat. Also, a big thing about preemies is that you need to protect their sleep. They need even more sleep than newborns — like 22 or 23 hours a day. This makes sense, but it was beyond frustrating.
I’ve never felt more like a mammal than I did during Louie’s time in the NICU.
I was a little hostile toward the end, but isn’t it normal for animals to exhibit hostility when their babies are taken away from them? Mothers and babies are supposed to be together. It was messing with my hormones. It was messing with my mind. You know how the mama orcas cry and cry and search for their babies for months when they’re taken away from them in captivity? I felt like that.
The day after Louie was born, a doctor came into our hospital room and told me that women who go into preterm labor are at a higher risk for postpartum depression. Well, OK. I mean, by the second week of his hospital stay, I was sad, yes. But it was completely circumstantial. I wasn’t with my baby, and it felt unnatural and wrong. Everything felt wrong until he was home with us. My intuition told me that we needed to be together — he was healthy, and he would thrive at home. My maternal, animal instinct isn’t the best debate point to use in an American hospital, but I was so confident about how things would be at home that I (we) decided to bring him home earlier than they wanted us to.
And by the way, if this had happened in Europe, I would have stayed with my baby in a private hospital room for his entire stay. We wouldn’t have been separated.
I do want to make clear, though, that the nurses who cared for Louie were angels. He was well taken care of at the hospital. If the NICU didn’t exist, I don’t know what would have happened. They save babies’ lives every day there, and we are forever grateful.
I knew that if we were patient, Louie would eventually graduate and be sent home on their terms. But as a new mother who was all the way across town from her baby for an entire month, patience was a really difficult thing.
When Joe and I talked about the possibility of bringing him home before they recommended his release, he asked me if I thought my desire to take him home could be compared to an impulse buy. Like, was I unwilling to wait despite everyone’s best interests in remaining patient? After pondering this carefully, I decided to stand my ground. Here’s the thing: I believed in their system. I knew Louie would eventually be released. But I also believed that he would thrive at home, with his mother, in our peaceful house, without all the cords, without all the constant beeping, and without all the fluorescent lights. I truly believed that it was in his best interest.
So, toward the end of January, we requested a meeting with one of the NICU doctors and told them that we’d like to bring Louie home within 72 hours.
They agreed to take the tube out of his nose and let him try to eat by mouth for all his feedings. I planned to spend the entire next couple of days there with him to work with him on eating. And he did great! He ate about 95 percent of his goal by mouth and even gained a tiny bit of weight on the last day.
But they still wanted to keep him there for a few more days to monitor his heart rate during his feedings and to make sure he continued to gain weight without the tube. Of course, it was mostly a liability issue. If anything happened, they needed to cover their asses and protect themselves in the event of a lawsuit.
I couldn’t wait a few more days. It sounds stupid, but my instincts told me that he needed to be home with us. And also, I didn’t want to wait because each day we were there, we’d have a new nurse or a new doctor, and the charting and communication would be different from the day before. I was afraid of what other reasons they might come up with for him to stay longer if we waited it out. I know this doesn’t sound logical, but when you’ve had a child in the hospital for an extended period, come talk to me.
The hospital staff was sympathetic and understanding, but unless you go through it as a parent, you don’t really know. I wasn’t OK, and I wouldn’t be OK until he was home.
Anyway, so we brought him home against their recommendation of keeping him there for a few more days. Getting him out was a process. They tried to talk us out of it. Louie’s last couple of days in the hospital could almost be a blog post of its own, and I would be happy to explain more about what happened to ya’ll in person, via email, or on social media if you’re interested. What I’ll say now is that it was a push to get him released. It was my living nightmare, and I felt like we really needed to get out of there — all of us. As we expected, they scared us pretty good about what could happen if he went home early, but I remained confident.
After 27 days and 78 visits to the hospital, we finally took Louie home.
When he came home, a cloud was lifted, just like I knew it would be. While he was in the hospital, everything was so stringent. The routine every three hours was to change his diaper, check his temperature, try feeding him, and then swaddle him and put him back in his little plastic bin to sleep. So, when we came home, we took him out of the car seat, and because of what we were used to, we immediately tried swaddling him and putting him in the bassinet. He started crying, and I remember thinking, I can just pick up my child and hold him. I don’t need to ask anyone’s permission. So I did. And he fell right asleep. I knew we made the right choice.
And guess what? Louie did thrive at home. He continued to gain weight. He was happy. We were happy. He was where he was supposed to be.
While Louie was in the NICU, we weren’t afraid for his health. The stress and sadness came from having a child in the hospital and not knowing exactly when he’d be home. No matter how healthy he was, that fact remained. My child is in the hospital, I’d repeat to myself over and over again, day after day.
The whole experience was undoubtedly traumatic, but it was like a slow burn of trauma. The surprise birth was intense, yes. But Louie’s month in the hospital was an excruciating drip, drip, drip of sadness, stress, and heartache. That part is over, though, and we’re stronger for it.
Now it’s time to dive into parenthood and start raising our sweet little boy. We’re pretty sure he’s gonna grow up to be a hilarious feminist basketball player, but we won’t know for at least a few years.
To be continued with Part III.