Opinion: What I learned from the NICU nurses

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I was surprised when my OB/GYN told me he'd have to induce labor almost seven weeks early, but maybe I should've seen it coming. Every doctor's appointment seemed to bring a new concern, but the news that my son was going to be born early made me almost make a run to the trash can to throw up. And my son was small for his gestational age, the doctor said, so I was even more frightened.

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After he was born, my son Jamie was immediately taken to the NICU without my husband and I even getting to hold him first. We quickly fell into a routine of seeing our son as much as possible (and feeling guilty when we'd leave to sleep, eat, or, in my husband's case, work) and learning from the NICU nurses who took care of him and other babies around the clock.

In addition to providing specialized care for preemies and other babies facing health challenges, nurses also take care of everything from bathing the babies to changing countless diapers. I was a first-time mom who was the youngest in my family, and although I babysat a lot in high school, I never took care of an infant. The combination of being worried about my son and not knowing anything about what I was doing made me, well, terrified.

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Enter the NICU nurses, who answered question after question and helped me get much more comfortable with caring for my son. One of the first things they told me was to not listen to the monitors. The steady beeps will occasionally stop or start a different pattern, and it's unnerving. They assured me the monitors were, well, monitored, and I should try my best not to fixate on them. I'm not sure I was completely ever able to tune them out, but it did give me peace of mind to know that I didn't need to keep track of them – not that I really knew what was going on with them anyway!

From there, we learned from the experts about taking care of our son. As we progressed from only being able to touch him with a gloved hand stuck into an isolette to holding him in a NICU rocking chair to being able to walk across the hall to the family room with him, we learned how to swaddle him in a blanket, feed him, change a diaper and burp our son. The recommended way to burp a preemie is different from the over-the-shoulder method, so we learned how to lean him slightly forward, support his chin with our fingers and pat him on the back.

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We became quite comfortable caring for Jamie during his NICU stay, thanks to the nurses. They patiently answered every question, no matter how basic, and provided pointers on how we could best take care of his needs. They even took a picture of his first bath, which was given in the middle of the night, so we could keep it.

Finally, when Jamie was ready to go home, I was thrilled, but still terrified. I finally knew he'd be OK when he was being cared for by NICU nurses 24/7, but what did I really know about taking care of a baby, much less a premature one? Why were they sending him home with someone who didn't know what to do if something went wrong? Once again, a little encouragement from the nurses was just what I needed. Preemies gain weight better at home, they told me, and I'd bring him back for a weigh-in in two days. And since the NICU is staffed around the clock, they told me to call them if I had any questions or worries, day or night.

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Yep, I called, because I was worried Jamie wasn't feeding like he should. They made some suggestions, asked how often he was wetting diapers, and told me that the weigh-in would let them know if he was gaining enough weight. Somehow Jamie survived me and gained even more weight than required in those two days.

My son is in college now, and he's probably gotten tired of hearing how little he used to be. Parents don't forget these things, even when they're looking up at their son, who's now much taller than they are. And they also don't forget the care that NICU nurses give to the babies in their care, as well as to the babies' parents.

Thank you.

Mary Caldwell is a freelance reporter with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.