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What to Expect When Entering the NICU
by Jennifer Thompson
Frequent hand washing - Upon entering a NICU, you will need to wash your hands thoroughly with an antibacterial soap and scrubber. At our NICU, we washed our hands and arms for three minutes before we were allowed into the room.

"Wash your hands just as the directions say so. Germ control is a big deal."

Isolettes and open beds - Isolettes are enclosed beds for the babies that are temperature controlled for babies who cannot maintain or regulate their own temperatures. The 'open beds' are small bassinettes and are used for babies who do not need the temperature-controlled environment of an isolette.

Monitors, wires and tubes - There are many different monitors in the NICU. Most babies will have one, several or all of the following monitored at some point during their stay: blood pressure, respirations, heart rate, and O2 saturation. There will be wires stuck to the baby, leading back to each respective monitor. I remember learning how to swaddle Grace and take her out of her isolette among the sea of wires. It isn't easy, but you learn how to do it. Some babies will also have a variety of tubes coming from them, in the form of feeding tubes, either in their nose or in their mouth, and IV lines, which may run through their umbilical stump, their arms or even their heads.

Beeps and alarms - One of the most unnerving parts of NICU for me at first was the constant barrage of beeps and alarms coming from the various monitors in the room. Most of the time, though, the beeps or alarms were false alarms; we soon learned that if Grace dislodged a sensor when she moved, an alarm would sound.

"I remember being really freaked out at first about all the monitors and wires. Every time I heard a beep, I thought a baby was in distress and/or dying. I learned that most of the time it wasn't anything to worry about (in my case anyway). There were a lot of other babies with all sorts of different machines. They were wonderful about letting us in at any time except 7am-10am when they were doing the rounds."

Nursing screens and breast pumps - Most NICUs will encourage mothers to pump breast milk for their babies, and so you will likely see privacy screens and breast pumps in the room. They may be in a separate nursing room or just off in a corner. When Grace was in the NICU, I was allowed to sit right next to her while I pumped.

Refrigerator - The NICU will have a refrigerator and a deep-freeze unit for storing expressed breast milk. Each bottle or bag of EBM will be labeled with the baby's name and the date and time it was expressed. Because Grace was so small and drank such small amounts of EBM, we had many little bags and bottles of frozen EBM to bring home the day she was released.

Rocking chairs - The NICU will have several rocking chairs or gliders, so that parents (and nurses) can comfortably hold and rock the babies.

Small babies - The NICU isn't exclusively for premature and low birth-weight babies, but most of the babies there will be small. It can be shocking to see a very small baby, especially if you're used to the size of full-term, average weight babies. After a while, though, the small babies look 'normal' and the 7 and 8 pounders look huge!

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