Rachel's son spent 31 weeks in hospital. She shares her top tips for getting through the Christmas season on the neonatal unit.
Thanks to Rachel and her family for sharing their story, and to Pregnacare charity partners Bliss.
When Hugo was born at 24 weeks in the summer, we were told that a rule of thumb for going home was to aim for his due date. Hugo’s due date was 14 December, but he had a number of setbacks and it became clear that we would be spending Christmas in hospital.
We had really hoped that he would be home by 25 December. A few of his NICU friends were discharged as we approached the big day – some only the day before – but we knew that while we really wanted him home, he simply wasn’t well enough.
We were disappointed as Christmas is a time for families and we really wanted ours to be all together, but we tried to make the best of it and to keep things as normal as possible in terms of celebrations for the sake of Hugo’s older brother Adam who was five-years-old and very excited about the big day.
These are our tips for surviving Christmas on the neonatal unit:
Take the pressure off
Don’t put yourself under any pressure to send cards or presents. You have enough on. That being said, you might find that writing cards during those countless hours in the hospital a good way to fill the time or you could send out an e-card instead. If you do want to get presents, internet shopping is the best way to go – especially if the platform provides a gift wrapping service. But remember: everyone will understand if you don’t have the time or energy to think about these things while your baby is in hospital.
Let people help you
Many people want to help when you have a baby on the neonatal unit but don’t know how. Write a list of the things you’d normally do at Christmas, but you can’t face this year, that others can help you with. This could include seasonal things like making cakes or mince pies and buying presents. It could also include the practical, everyday things like making meals to heat up, putting your bins out, feeding your pets, picking up older children from school or having them to stay to give you chance to spend more time at the hospital.
It might seem a big cheeky to ask for help, but we were told by our friends that they had no idea what they could do that would make life easier for us. You could put a list of ways people could help on your social media pages, or on a WhatsApp group. You could get a close friend to do this for you – this way they can organise who’s doing what on your behalf.
Include your baby in the celebrations
If you have a baby in hospital from birth for months on end, it can sometimes feel like they’re not really yours. Christmas provides a wonderful opportunity to bond with your baby and help you to feel like you are part of the family.
These are some ways you can make your baby part of your celebrations:
- Ask if you can decorate your baby’s cot space, even small things like some tinsel or a tree decoration can make you feel that they are involved
- Buy or make Christmas decorations with your baby’s name on – to put on the tree at home or on your baby’s cot space
- Get them a Christmas stocking. It may seem like they don’t need anything, but you could include a new soft toy, a lullabies CD, a Christmas book to read to them, a new hat or blanket. Wrap the presents up and either put them under the tree or at the end of the cot/incubator to open on Christmas morning
- If your baby is big enough – or even if they’re not – buy a “my first Christmas” baby grow for them to wear
- Take photos of you all together
Take time out
We all need time away from the neonatal unit, it can be a pressured and stressful place. Try to make arrangements to go to the hospital carol service, or to your older children’s school Christmas events, or to a local Christmas fair. A trip out for hot chocolate or mulled wine can help give you a breather from the neonatal unit, which we all need sometimes.
Get together with other parents
If you’re away from home or in hospital accommodation, consider getting together with other parents to celebrate. Bring food onto the unit to share, or take it in turns to prepare a meal that you can all enjoy together when you take a break.
We were lucky enough to live close enough to hospital to not need hospital accommodation, so some great friends invited us around for Christmas lunch – this meant that we could spend the morning with Hugo together as a family but still celebrate a “normal” Christmas to some extent.
A couple of families who became friends of ours at the unit were staying at the local Ronald McDonald House. Their extended family members prepared the parents a meal that they then ate together while having a breather from the hospital. Shared neonatal experiences can bring people together and create great friendships, especially at times like Christmas.
Remember, it’s just one day
If you’re finding it too stressful to think about Christmas, postpone it. It’s just one day and you can celebrate it any time that suits your family, whether that’s when life is calmer, when your baby is out of hospital or even wait until next year! What is important is that you can spend time together as a family, however and wherever you manage it.
Just after Christmas we discovered that Hugo would need both heart and bowel surgery before he could come home. We went on to spend both Mother’s Day and Easter on the neonatal unit until he was eventually discharged, after 31 weeks in hospital. He came home on oxygen, but within two months he was finally tube-free! He is now a feisty three-year-old who we struggle to keep up with. His big brother still loves the memory of carrying Hugo’s stocking full of presents into his room on the neonatal unit that year.
To those of you who are looking at spending Christmas Day on the unit – I know it’s difficult. When we were on the neonatal unit there were times when we thought we’d never be home, altogether as a family. For all the great things the neonatal unit can do, it’s not where you’d choose to be. But treasure everyday with your baby, no matter what is going on in the outside world, these are your own special memories of their first Christmas that you’ll always remember.
If you have been affected by any of the issues mentioned in this post and would like support, you can view the Bliss online support pages. You can also read the Christmas story of Kizzy, Sally and baby Isla