In a few short days, Haven will be nine months old. Nine months of joy, sleep deprivation, laughs, changing diapers, and watching her grow.
I knew it would feel bittersweet to see her grow and change, and I love seeing how she is discovering the world around her and getting stronger. But, I also fiercely miss the days when she was five pounds and some ounces, barely staying awake to eat, and snuggles for dayssssss.
And, strangely enough, I also sometimes miss our days in the NICU. These are our first memories with her, and even though it was Hard with a capital H to have her in the hospital, I understand why I look back so fondly on them.
After holding her for a while, I gave her back to the nurse to place her back in the crib. She wasn’t in an incubator yet, and she looked so little and helpless with wires everywhere. I asked my Mom to take a picture of me, Josh, and Haven-our first family photo. It’s not the one I was expecting-in the hospital bed, minutes after birth, with the baby sleeping peacefully on my chest-but it was our first picture, and part of our story, and I love it for that.
The nurse explained to me that I could come down and see her anytime I wanted, with the exception of 6:45 to 7:45 pm and am, while the nurses changed shifts. We headed back down to my room, and I tried to settle in and get some sleep, a difficult task while on an emotional high off of getting to see and hold her.
For the first few nights, while I was still admitted in the hospital, I would get up to pump in the middle of the night. I was only getting a few drops at most, but I knew any little bit would help her. I would walk down the hall, even at 4 in the morning to go see her and drop off the tiny bit of milk I had.
I couldn’t try to nurse her for several days, until she was off of oxygen machines. Until then, she was receiving IV fluids for nourishment, as well as IV antibiotics for her suspected case of pneumonia. Because she couldn’t nurse, the NICU nurse would take a q-tip, dip it in the drops of milk, and swab it in her mouth. She said it was called oral care, and it gives her a taste of the “liquid gold”.
After the first night, Haven was moved to an incubator in the spot right in front of the desk. She was the first baby you saw as you came in the doors to the NICU.
After two and a half days, I was released from the hospital. Before we left, we went down to the NICU to say goodbye. When the nurse learned that I was being released, she took Haven’s CPAP off so I could see her face while I held her. She could breathe without it, it was just labored breathing. “Momma needs to be able to see her baby,” she said with a smile.
She handed her to me, and I started crying. This was the moment I had waited for-to hold my baby and to gaze into her face. I still mourn that I didn’t get this moment right after delivery, but it was maybe even more special because I had anticipated it so much. The moment only lasted a minute or so, and then she needed to be put back on the CPAP.
Before we left the hospital, we stopped at the in-hospital pharmacy to pick up my prescription, and I remember sitting in the waiting area, with my It’s a Girl! balloon, boppy pillow, and suitcase, and feeling like people were looking at us and wondering where the baby was. While loading everything into the car, my eyes filled with tears as I thought, we should be driving home with a baby. As we drove away, I realized it was the first time I would really be apart from her, with miles between us, and she was only 36 hours old.
When we got home, some friends and family had graciously cleaned our house for us. Josh’s parents had finished up painting in Haven’s room, and my father-in-law had put her crib together. It was wonderful to be home, but of course it didn’t feel quite right. It felt normal, but abnormal within the context of my new reality. How could I sit and watch TV while my baby is in the hospital? Shouldn’t I be doing something because my baby is in the hospital? I should be breastfeeding instead of pumping but I can’t because my baby is in the freaking hospital.
The next week and a half is hard to separate by day in my mind, because every day turned out to be mostly the same. I would get up in the middle of the night, every 2-3 hours and pump. I had the pump set up next to my bed, and I would sit on the edge of the bed while I pumped. Bleary-eyed, I would label the bottle, put it in the freezer, wash my pump parts, and crawl back into bed.
In the mornings, I would wake up, shower, and get ready to go. My Mom and I would ride in her car, and Josh would drive ours so he could leave for work from the hospital. As we pulled up and parked at the hospital, I would feel so giddy that I was about to go see Haven. The ride up to the sixth floor, down and around the halls, and the scrubbing in process couldn’t happen fast enough.
As the nurse buzzed me in through the doors, I was greeted with the familiar beeps of the monitors, low lighting to create a relaxed atmosphere for the babies, and the smell of soap and hand sanitizer. I would find my nurse and get updates from the last few hours.
She had to wear the CPAP for the first three days (the specifics are fuzzy now), then she had cannulas in for a day, then she was on room air. The last day she was on cannulas, I arrived and saw that they were taped to her face, but not actually in her nose. I found our nurse, who was tending to another baby, and she said that Haven had actually been pulling them out all morning, and her oxygen levels were staying up without them in, so she was just keeping an eye on her. She kept her levels up for several hours, so we got to take them off that day!
After she was off of oxygen machines, I was able to try to nurse her. Because she was a preemie, it was a struggle. I’ll go into more detail in a blog about our breastfeeding journey (I have a ton to say about that), but the short version is this: in the beginning, because she was so little and so sleepy, I would latch her on, and she would just sit there. For the days that she was still receiving IV fluids, this was okay because she was getting her nutrition there. As soon as she finished the fluids, though, if she wouldn’t nurse after 20 minutes of trying, we would have to give her a bottle of pumped milk. Although it was a “slow flow” nipple, the milk dripped out and poured out of the sides of her tiny mouth. There were times when I was able to get her to nurse for a few minutes, but it was always very weak nursing.
Because she was having so much trouble nursing, she went from her 5 lbs 10 ounces birth weight down to 5 lbs 3 ounces. She was also jaundiced, and spent several days under the bilirubin lights. Those days were hard, because she had to spend most of the day in the isolette instead of in my arms.
The nurses have the babies on three hour schedules, so every three hours, we would take her temperature, change her diaper, and the nurse would do an exam. They always weighed her wet and dirty diapers to measure output, to make sure she was getting enough milk. Then, we would carefully unhook the monitor wires, transfer her to the crib, and roll her to the pumping/nursing room. After attempting to nurse, then bottle feeding, I would send her back out with Josh or my Mom, and I would stay in the room to pump. If her bilirubin levels were good that day, and if she was keeping her body temperature well, we could hold her as long as we wanted.
I would usually stay at the NICU from 8 AM to 10 or 11 PM, only leaving during the shift changes, or to run home to eat or eat in the cafeteria. Leaving at night was always hard. I remember crying the whole way home one night, and when we walked in the door, my Mom (who had gone back to our house earlier) asked, “Is everything okay?” “It’s just so hard,” I told her.
I often called in the middle of the night for updates on Haven. They would usually do a blood draw to check bilirubin levels over the midnight shift, so I would call to see if her levels would be good that day, or if she would be under the lights again. Often, I just called because I wanted to be connected to her somehow. The nurses were so great, and always reassured me with news on how well she was doing. One nurse told me, with a laugh, about how she had just gotten done giving her a bottle, and she spit up the milk all over her, some of which had already curdled.
When she was getting close to the end of her stay, all she needed to do was to be able to regulate her own body temperature, and to get on a trend of weight gain instead of loss. I remember that the day that she got to wear clothes for the first time (after finishing her IV fluids and only had the monitor wires to work around), and the day she moved to an open air crib (when she could regulate her temp) were both really exciting days.
During this time, they allowed us to stay in a room across the hall, so I could try to nurse her overnight. It was great to have a place to land, and to take a nap if I needed.
On the 12th day, as I walked into the NICU, our nurse walked up to me and said, “You’re going home today!” “Really?!” I couldn’t believe that we were finally going to be able to bring her home. Haven had passed her carseat test overnight-they must be able to sit in their carseat for 90 minutes without their stats dropping-and she was finally gaining weight.
We hadn’t had a chance to have the carseat base properly installed, so we called around to several fire stations to see if anyone could install it for us that day. Josh took it to be installed, and I picked out an outfit for her to go home in. We didn’t have any warm clothes that were small enough for her, so her going home outfit was super random-whatever I could roll up and layer.
The nurse brought her to our room, we strapped her into the carseat, and the nurse rolled her downstairs in a wagon. The nurse we had had for several days was Filipino, so we talked about the Philippines and Filipino foods while Josh pulled the car up. It was raining, so we covered her carseat with a blanket and loaded her in.
Finally, we were home. We brought her inside and set the carseat down on the living room floor for the cats to see. While it felt amazing to be home, it also felt a little anticlimactic. I always pictured bringing my first baby home to a house full of family members, but our family had all needed to go home before she came home from the hospital.
Nevertheless, we were home, and I was so thankful. I was so excited to finally start our everyday lives as a family of three.