A parent’s survival guide to having a sick newborn in the hospital

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The last thing you want to hear as a new parent is that your perfect, healthy baby is not so perfect or healthy after all.

You especially don’t want to hear that as you’re packing your bags and filling out paperwork to bring your newborn daughter home in a few short hours.

And you really don’t want to hear it the day before Thanksgiving.

But it happens. And, if you’ve read our post about Charlie’s delivery back in November, you’ll know that it happened to us.

The nurses knew something might be wrong when Charlie failed her first oxygen test. “But she may have just wiggled her foot too much,” they reassured me. “We’ll take her for a second test.”

Then she failed the second test, and the third test, so from there they took her for X-rays and an echocardiogram. Once they had those results a pediatrician came into the room to give us the news:

Our newborn had somehow contracted pneumonia.

They couldn’t pinpoint how it had happened. If I came into contact with someone who had pneumonia soon before giving birth, that could have done it—though I showed no symptoms of even a cold. More likely, Charlie aspirated amniotic fluid during the delivery.

The routine two-day hospital stay was extended by an extra week.

Our doctors ordered a course of treatment involving multiple doses of multiple meds over the next seven days.

We were faced with a million questions. Could I keep breastfeeding her? Could we as parents stay in the hospital with her? What if she got better quickly? What if she got worse?

We had no one to ask except for hospital staff. Now that we’ve come out on the other side, I want to share what I wish I had known from the start.

The last thing you want to hear as a new parent is that your perfect, healthy baby is not so perfect or healthy after all.

1. Ask about a twilight room.

Insurance only covered my hospital room for two nights after delivery. But I wanted to breastfeed without having to drive back and forth between the hospital and home every two hours.

We learned that many hospitals offer twilight rooms—very basic accommodations for parents with sick babies. At the University of Utah, a twilight room is essentially a utility closet that’s been emptied and then equipped with a cot.

Cold, cramped, and uncomfortable, but much better than making a 20-minute drive at 3 in the morning to feed your child.

Having this room allowed me to catch two or three hours of sleep between feeds. When Charlie started to wake up or act hungry, even at 3 in the morning, a nurse or MA knocked on my door to let me know.

Twilight rooms are typically prioritized by several factors: the family home’s distance from the hospital, whether the mother is breastfeeding, the seriousness of the baby’s illness, etc. At our hospital, we had to let them know each morning that we wanted to stay in a twilight room. By mid-afternoon they’d alert us whether we could use it. I managed to keep the same twilight room for the entire week that I needed it, but that doesn’t always happen.

2. Give loved ones assignments.

Your friends and family will want to help. But they won’t know how.

And even if you feel like you’re inconveniencing people, isn’t that what family is for?

So when things pop up—a dog at home that needs to be fed and walked, bins to be placed in the street for the garbage truck, or you just need to see people who aren’t wearing scrubs and being paid to talk to you—don’t let it go unsaid. Don’t hope that someone will read your mind and know what you need.

Call or text your people and offer up a specific, real assignment.

3. Alternate between cafeterias in the hospital.

You’ll find it easiest to eat in the hospital rather than going out or going home. That’s not to say you should never leave the premises; just that you may not want the hassle every time.

If your hospital is relatively big it probably offers at least a couple options for food. Check them all out and rotate through them to avoid eating the same meal every day. Alec and I ate in the cafeteria, at Starbucks, and in a cafe on another wing. He also sometimes picked up takeout from nearby restaurants.

The point is, you’ll feel better the more variety you can keep in your diet.

4. Take time for yourself.

New parents can feel like they exist only to serve the needs of their babies. You start to lose a sense of yourself. Dads can feel this just as much as moms can.

The last thing you want to hear as a new parent is that your perfect, healthy baby is not so perfect or healthy after all.

Remember that your job now is to take care of yourself so that you can also take care of your new child. If that means you need a little time away, take some time away. No one is going to blame you for escaping the stuffy, cramped nursery for a couple hours.

Logistically, it can be hard to leave, especially if you’re breastfeeding your baby. However, it’s not impossible. We ended up breaking out the breast pump earlier than planned in order to provide some extra bottles of milk to the nurses. That way if Charlie woke up while I was taking a nap on my cot or grabbing food in a cafe, they could at least stave off the hunger until I came back to the nursery.

5. Bring board games.

Or books or knitting or laptops or movies. Or all of the above. You will have a lot of extra time on your hands and you can only stare adoringly at your newborn child for so long before your brain starts to melt from inactivity.

At first Alec and I felt like we had to devote all our time to loving Charlie. But let me tell you a secret. Babies have very little interest or awareness in what’s happening around them. They don’t mind if you sit and read instead of smiling at them for hours on end.

Our entertainment? Scrabble, Netflix, blog, Facebook, and for Alec, school work.

6. Go for walks.

I suggest walking for a couple of reasons. First, you’ll quickly run out of things to do in the hospital. Walking and people-watching keeps you busy.

Second, if you’re the one who just gave birth, walking offers a chance to build up your strength again and start down the road to recovery. Of course, not everyone will be ready to walk just days after delivering a baby. But for me, walking was the perfect way to start feeling more normal. (Not gonna lie, though. Alec quite often dragged a wheelchair around with us in case I got too tired.)

7. Lean on the nurses and other hospital staff.

Part of me was actually a tiny bit disappointed about going home after Charlie was cleared to leave. Because for the first ten days of her life we had full-time assistance ready to step in anytime she pooped or peed or cried. The nurses and MAs loved snuggling Charlie and no one ever hesitated to change her diaper if we didn’t want to.

Appreciate their help! Use them! When they offer to clear out your baby’s nose or burp her after a feed, don’t feel guilty about accepting. A time will come when you’ll have to do everything yourself.

The last thing you want to hear as a new parent is that your perfect, healthy baby is not so perfect or healthy after all.

Take some shifts, of course, so you’re not clueless on your first night home, but really. Don’t feel guilty handing your newborn off to a nurse.

8. Take showers.

Just like walking might help you feel more like yourself, showering regularly, brushing your teeth, and maintaining basic hygiene will help you feel more alert and refreshed.

My twilight room didn’t have a shower attached and at first I was too nervous to ask if there was somewhere I could clean up. But when I checked with an MA, I learned that there were showers in the maternity ward for just that purpose.

Although I had a hard time finding moments to sneak away, I felt like an entirely different person when I managed to shower and clean up. (#worthit)

9. Meet with a financial counselor at the hospital.

Alec has stellar insurance, so we didn’t have to worry too much about money. That being said, taking care of tiny humans can get pricey. X-rays and IVs and echocardiograms and multiple rounds of medication will rack up tens of thousands of dollars VERY QUICKLY.

Many hospitals will forgive debts for families in need. If your insurance coverage leaves something to be desired, and you’re concerned about how you’ll pay the enormous bills, make an appointment with a financial counselor at the hospital.

I don’t want to pretend to be any sort of expert on having a child with a serious illness.

In the end, Charlie was about as healthy as you could expect from a baby with pneumonia. She responded to the meds and didn’t even seem unhealthy except for her low oxygen levels.

We had a taste of what it’s like, though, to spend days—or, heaven forbid, months—in the hospital waiting for your helpless baby to get better.

Just remember, this too shall pass.


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