Sam Vickery

Author

Inside the Barbaric World of a Neonatal Unit

20150401_154949Have you ever been to a neonatal unit?

I have.

Prior to being transferred to the children’s ward, we spent several gruelling weeks with my daughter in neonatal.

I felt like I had been transported to an alien world. Everyone kept saying how wonderful it was, how amazing the care was and I admit, the nurses were (mostly) kind and caring. But a wonderful place?

No.

I found it to be the most barbaric environment I have even been subjected to. A mother and her newborn are biologically programmed to need each other. Hormones are raging, the need to hold and touch your baby is all you can think of. And the last thing a sick baby needs is the stress of being separated from their mother. Kangaroo care works. Cuddles are truly healing.

Yet neonatal has no beds for a mother to stay with her baby, for them to be with each other when they most need to. I am blessed with the most wonderful husband, thankfully. Together, we did shifts through the night for the duration of her stay, each getting no more than a few hours sleep every night, all whilst caring for our son too.

I had just given birth.

I was exhausted.

My legs were swollen and I was still bleeding.

Yet at four in the morning, if I fell asleep in a chair beside my baby, the nurses would literally shout at me until I roused. For the first day, every nurse tried to discourage me from holding my daughter as it wasn’t their policy.

They soon gave up.

During the hardest time of my life, a time where I needed to focus on my daughters health and well-being more than anything else, I found myself fighting petty battles and arguing nonsense policies. No, not every baby in the unit was strong enough to be held. That doesn’t mean you should implement a blanket policy to discourage every parent from picking up their own child.

I was lucky by comparison. When it became apparent that we were literally falling apart to give our children round the clock care, when we we’re in constant tears of utter debilitating exhaustion, the doctors finally made the decision to move us to the children’s ward where I could at long last crawl into bed with my daughter and get some sleep.

There were plenty of parents there who didn’t have that choice. Their stay was for months, not weeks. Many were single parents who didn’t have the choice to tag-team. They had to walk away each and every night, leaving their heart in a box behind them.

A choice they should never have been forced to make.

I am grateful for the medical care my daughter received whilst in neonatal, of course I am. But the practice of separating a mother from her baby at this most vulnerable time is so outdated and harmful, both to the baby and the mother and it needs to be addressed. Every single scientific study in the past decade backs me up and it’s time neonatal wards made some major changes so that future parents don’t have to suffer this horror.

Sometimes, everyone around you is wrong. Sometimes you find yourself in an alien world, exhausted and barely coping, and yet you have to summon the strength to fight the biggest battle of your life.

I won’t let you stop me being by my baby’s side.

You can try to exhaust me mentally and physically.

You can deprive me of sleep, food and empathy.

You can beat me down, but I won’t let you win.

Because I know I am right and you are wrong. I know that the fact that my baby needs me, matters more than your empty policies. I know I won’t stop fighting for what is right in my heart.

Break me, throw rocks at me, starve me. It doesn’t matter. My heart is made of something stronger than your weapons can destroy.

27 Comments

  1. Hi Sam,well done for not giving up, and I am sure that it made a big difference to your little girl s recovery.
    I agree with you even though I have never been through what you have, I had to have another c section for my second baby girl 6 month ago and I too had to fight to be able to hold my baby, I was so eager and impatient, and they me wait so long, and when they finally gave her to me I breastfed her straightaway and they took her away again 10 min later, and every night after that I had to wait for the nurses to go to pick her up, but they would always come back later in the night and tell me to put her in the cot,they drove me crazy, I found it unbearable to have her away from me and not being able to touch her.
    After a while they gave up and let me sleep with her.
    I know that I can t compare my situation with yours,and I imagine it was hell for you, I just think that in general they should let mothers sleep with their babies unless heavily medicated and there should a lot more skin to skin allowed in the maternity, I find it shockingly backwards and very old fashioned.
    I even heard a midwife talking to the girl next to me saying : “you shouldn t have let your relatives hold your baby so much today because he will never sleep in the cot now, he s spoilt.”
    I agree with you, something needs to change,these policies are ancient and ridiculous. I hope your family is doing ok now and I hope things got a little easier. All the best
    Delphine
    Dd 5
    Ds 6 months
    Ireland

  2. Sam Vickery

    March 6 at 10:30 pm

    Oh I’m sorry you had to go through that Delphine. They really do need some more training on the biological needs of babies, it’s so outdated. Once we moved from the neonatal to the main hospital, we immediately started co-sleeping. Some of the nurses and sisters questioned it at first and a few complained that it wasn’t comfortable for them to reach her, but after all we went through I wasn’t willing to compromise at all on that issue. Now when we have to go in they give us a big bed with full sides and accept it completely as one of our little family quirks.

  3. God that’s awful. This really needs to be changed! I spent 4 months in the nicu with my daughter in Boston where they treated us just the same as on the ward. The nurses were trained to encourage bonding. Why are we so behind! So sad. I think unicef have a campaign to try to change this approach.

  4. That’s Boston usa btw

  5. This is so sad, you are so strong sam! Your children are lucky to have such intuitive and loving parents 🙂
    I had to stay a week in hospital with my bubs after birth because he was induced early (not prem) due to stopping growth. I had only held him during feeds really and when i was holding quitly while he was sleeping a nurse came in and told me i shouldnt leave him alone because he needs to put his energy into growing. Some of the nurses make you feel like your an isiot and you know nothing ( some are fantastic though) .I wish i hadnt listened to her, and in the future thanx to your article if im ever in a position that comprimises my intincts thanx to your article i will have the cou r age to believe in my mothering instincts and not cold clinical people who dont always know best

  6. Sam Vickery

    March 7 at 5:55 pm

    Abby, I’m so glad to see a better set up exists somewhere! I think I read that somewhere in the Netherlands they encourage mothers and fathers to stay with the neonates and provide parent beds and co sleeper cots. I was so surprised to find that in a modern western country they have no clue about what babies really need on a biological level. It is heartbreaking.

  7. Sam Vickery

    March 7 at 5:59 pm

    Tegan, it is so strange! What is this believe that babies will tire themselves out by being cuddled? So many of the nurses I met said the same thing. I must admit though, a few came up to me at the end and said thank you for showing them a different way of doing things. I think it made a big difference that my son who was four at the time was always there and they saw how he has developed with our parenting style and that I hadn’t “ruined him” with love.

  8. I had such a similar eaperience and was horrified at constantly being treated like an intruder into my son’s space and life. Especially upsetting once I became aware of alternatives like THIS
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VVwbVJpfgAc
    We must change this.
    Thank you for wring about this. I am still too angry to put it into words. My son had congenital chylothorax and I was told, at three days old, that he could not have my milk- it made his condition far worse. Then they stopped letting me in when he was crying (“We don’t need you to come in – go get some rest and we will feed him”). I was incensed and didn’t leave after that. And I sang, skin to skin. A LOT, and it bothered them A LOT

  9. This is awful both my children was in nicu but the nurses there was amazing regarding bonding with my children it was some much harder with my second child because I was unwell and there is on 18 months between my children so had to share my time with them it was heartbreaking but the nurses was always being positive and there was rooms for you to sleep in so I think the hospitals that do not have this facility needs to invest in getting some rooms so the parents can sleep over so they are still close to their child xx

  10. Been there. Done that. It breaks my heart even now, to the point I can only write about it obliquely on my own blog. Bravo to you for detailing it like this – and for using such strong language. Even ‘barbaric’ doesn’t begin to do the pain justice x

  11. Shirley Pearce

    March 9 at 1:32 pm

    It seems strange that a vet would only consider separating a newborn mammal from its mother in extremely rare circumstances. And yet we get it so wrong with our own species – it doesn’t make any sense. Congratulations on withstanding the pressure and following your maternal instincts. I do hope the ‘experts’ have learned from you and changed their policy.

  12. Hey Sam your story sounds eerily similar to mine 14 years ago! We have a FB page called Premature Baby Support (NUMB). A few years ago we tried to petition our government for change in NZ. ..but there have been no changes to rooming in. One difference I see is that there is more research to back us up but there is still major resistance to change. I also got told to put my baby back as they need to “sleep to grow” and I would say but she is asleep, on me! I also didn’t leave and this caused all manner of difficulty and discomfort.

  13. The midwives here don’t get called ‘madwives’ for nothing!

  14. Hi Sam, I felt like I was reading my birth journey when I read your post. My daughter is now 14 months and we’ve been through a very intense first year with her. She screamed basically till she was six months and then gradually got better, weve always co-slept (except those weeks in hospital) but her sleep patterns have always been very challenging. I’m sure it is all connected to the care we received in the nicu and snu. I’m also grateful for the lifesaving care we received, a crazy mixture of gratitude, anger and confusion. But the care after the birth was truly awful, she was taken away from me constantly and I didn’t feel strong enough to stand up for us, we were told she was too small to breastfeed (she happily proved them wrong), and my husband was very upset to be told he was overhandling her. I was moved around from ward to ward, surrounded by women who had their babes, and during the nights I was alone.

    I am still finding it hard to let go and I’m holding on to the fact that there are others like me. I feel encouraged that things are slowly changing.

    Much love on your journey with your sweet daughter and I hope you find some peace in your story.

    Niki

  15. Hi Sam,
    I honor you and your wife/partner for your dedication to your children. I am so sad for you having gone through this.
    I too had to deal with it after the birth of my 1st child. I went home without him. I wasn’t offered a choice.
    I decided when I had my 2nd child I would do everything in my power to prevent this from happening again. I spent years doing research and discovered that the interventions we received during his birth caused his health problems — and NONE of them were medically necessary.
    The journey and research led me to Bradley Childbirth classes, and a Midwife. The bottom line is that I had a healthy baby the 2nd time, and got to hold, and nurse him, and take him home. :>)
    I have now been teaching these classes for 20 years. I do it because I know that they can help to reduce the number of babies in the NICU. Prevention is the key, in most cases – not all, but most. {*hugs*} Amy

  16. Sam Vickery

    March 11 at 11:51 am

    Thank you Amy. I had a wonderful, unassisted birth with just my husband supporting me. Unfortunately, in the case of our daughter, the birth experience wasn’t ever going to make a difference. I am forever grateful that we didn’t know what was coming though, as I’m sure our birth plans would have come under heavy scrutiny and we would have been encouraged into the hospital. Those two blissful, ignorant days at home before we knew how poorly she was were something we have held on to in the months since. We got to sleep in our own bed with our newborn daughter and I know that many parents are not so lucky. I’m so glad your second birth was more positive, I imagine that was very healing for you.

  17. Sam Vickery

    March 11 at 11:57 am

    Thank you Niki. I don’t know that it is something you can ever get over fully, it’s such a shock and for me, the complete loss of power was very hard. I couldn’t just stand up and walk away with my baby which is what I most wanted to do. You feel like a hostage, yet you yourself are free to go, you just can’t because they have your baby. It is such a conflicting and harrowing experience. I’m so glad things are beginning to shift for you. I hope things continue to get easier.

  18. Sam Vickery

    March 11 at 12:06 pm

    Donna, I remember one incident where I was told that they wanted to do a four hour operation on a baby in the same ward as my daughter and that I had to leave for confidentiality purposes. I completely sympathised with their dilemma, yet I told them that there was no way I would leave my daughter for four hours without a parent and that they would have to find us somewhere to go together or do the operation in another room. I was told I was “being awkward” and a whole team of people came to basically bully me out of the room. It was so hard to stand my ground, but I just held on to my baby and refused to move. I have never been treated so unfairly. A nurse told me I had made the mother of the other baby cry by refusing to move. I later went to apologise to the mother and she said she hadn’t even known I was arguing with them and she was crying because her baby was going to have an operation, not because of me. I love that you are fighting against this broken system. I find it hard to believe it is even an issue in this day and age.

  19. Hi Sam.
    9 months ago I had a little girl who had to leave me our first night together and go down to the neo natel. She was there for 10 days. I had ,had a c-section so was unable to get myself down to her and had to rely on a porter to bring me up and down.my partner was with our older child so I had nt him either. By day 2 ,I was walking up and down myself to see her as much as I could and continued to do so every day after that. I had a path worn to the neo by the end of it. When my partner came to visit we would sit with her together or sometimes I would go and try and rest. The separation anxiety was unbearable and the only place I could relax and stop crying was when I was with her and I could see her. Luckily I was breastfeeding which was really encouraged so I could hold her a lot.
    I wholeheartedly agree that the sound of my voice and skin to skin contact instantly relaxed her and she knew exactly when I was by her side. I only wish I could have been with her 24/7. X

  20. We had a simialr experience but more fortunate in days not weeks. It was still long enough to prevent my milk from coming in and 5 months on I am still taking motillium, fenugreek, drinking an ocean of water, starting the day with oats, massaging, expressing and thats my ongoing daily battle. That first week after the traumatic birth, already bearing guilt of the damage done to my daughter, wondering if there would be permanent damage I should have been relishing the first days and forming that bond with my baby but instead i was being sent away or getting tossed between 2 medical teams while my baby was pinned to machines like Gulliver.

  21. Nikki reeves

    March 14 at 2:20 pm

    I had my second son 4 months ago. Im a diabetic so am prone to having larger babies. My first son wss 9lbs at 38weeks and my second son was 7lbs 14 ounces at 35 weeks. Due to him being born so young he had to be put on cpap so he could breath better as he wasnt able to do this with his lungs so underdeveloped. My hospital actually gave me the choice of staying in the hospital. With my circumstances i declined which was a heartbreaking decision. The meals were carb loaded and i found it hard to control my sugars plus my 4 year old needed his mum too. I opted to go home each night at about 7pm (which broke me down every night) and would return with my eldest at 8 in the morning. My husbsnd took a week off initially but then returned for work so it was tough….and so tiring but i could not fault the nursing staff. They constantly offered privacy for skin on skin. They moved me around the room so i could watch my son in the tv corner while still cuddling and feeding my youngest and on many occasions i could kangaroo cuddle him for the entire time between three hourly feeds. The nursing staff even printed colouring pictures for my eldest and brought him boxes and pens to make garages for his toy cars. They even brought extra dvds for us and took him for walks when they had to go grab something. And they always had a big comfy recliner to fall asleep on each afternoon. They kept me in the loop with everything. They would call and ask if they could give him ebm if i wasnt there yet or if i wanted them to snuggle him for 15 minutes while i got myself there. They held him when i had to stop mid feed to take the eldest to the toilet. They wstched my eldest while i ran to the canteen to get him and i some lunch if he was asleep. They were so considerate. I could not fault them and although i wanted to do more it was my own decisions and obligations that kept me from that. Not the staff at all. I didnt hold my baby for nearly 2 days after he was born but i knew that him being on his cpap machine was what he needed and he could cuddle my hand on his chest. I was also given fabric love hearts that i wore in my bra to absorb my smell and would leave in his humidicrib so he had my smell with him. My eldest drew pictures and they would stick it to his crib so he felt connected to his little brother. I cant imagine what you have been through but without the support of the nurses i had i dont think i would have coped well at all.

  22. You go mama!! It is awful how they dehumanize and treat women in labor and even afterwards in these situations! Effeciency and policies rule over having compassion and care. No mama or baby is the same, no situation is the same and care should be based on the BEST for that mama and baby!! And close contact and feeling their parents is the proven best for all babies!! It just blows my mind how horrid the treatment is of our littlest lives and at a woman’s mark vulnerable time!

  23. Hi Sam,
    I’m sorry you had this experience, but not all NICU units are like this. My daughter spent five weeks in one, and that was 4 years ago. The couch in her room pulled out in to a bed, I slept there in her room every night, the staff there were very nice, providing me with sheets, pillows, etc. I even had my own locked closet to put my stuff in. I wasn’t able to hold her at first, she had lots of tubes and not so stable, but as soon as she was more stable even with the wires and tube down her throat, the nurses made it a point to help me do kangaroo care as much as possible. They even provided a breast pump to use while I was there. And the time I was in the hospital the first couple days myself, I had an emergency c-section, they would wheel me over to see her and I could even call over there from my room and they had a special camera where I could watch her from my tv. There was also the Ronald McDonald house right there next to the NICU where they provide food for you to eat and rooms to stay in if you preferred, all at no cost. They also provide meal tickets for free for breastfeeding mothers to use in their cafeteria. Like I said I’m sorry for your experience, but I don’t think it’s fair for you to portray all NICUs to be that way.

  24. I could have written this verbatim! My son was six weeks early and required a seven-day stay in the neonatal intensive care unit. It was a constant battle of wills and I will happily say that I won in the end but no mother should have to go through what we have gone through just after childbirth. I took my fight to social media when I was told I could not sleep in the chair near my son who was only there for feedings and already on room air and maintaining his own temperature. It was amazing how things quickly changed but I also had a new fight to deal with in that the head nurse told me that all the nurses work now afraid of me. Honestly, I didn’t care so much since I was not there to make friends but to be there for my baby. I was truly blessed with my village at the time who brought me food around the clock for the first two days where they did not even offer me food vouchers for the cafeteria. I even had a friend think so much about my healing and recovery that she brought disposable toiletries so I could wash in the public bathroom and not have to leave since they also would not offer me a room to shower in. Going from midwifery care and homebirth with my third child to a NICU stay with my fourth, in such a barbaric conditions was a living hell in my world and truly lead to what I would consider a form of PTSD. I delivered in what was considered a “boutique” of a hospital that is privately owned by doctors, where you are served steak and lobster after delivery! I would have happily given up my steak and lobster for common courtesy and postpartum knowledge by the staff of the unit. I could really go on and on about the horrible things he told to me by the nurses, my baby is about to turn to and it still stresses me out to think about it all. Delivery at Baylor Frisco in Texas. Sadly, I had a magnificent Doctor Who let me have total control of my birth experience even with it being a premature delivery. He was over the moon amazing but it was all clouded due to the next seven days treatment in the neonatal intensive care unit.

  25. svickery

    April 12 at 10:26 pm

    I’m so sorry you went through this too. Your words reminded me very much of my own experience and I certainly was not popular there, but I didn’t care. It was hard in the hospital because I got quite friendly with some of the nurses after being there so long, which can make it harder to stand your ground as it’s not nice to upset a friend, but I always did nonetheless. Baby’s needs always have to come first as difficult and as awkward as it can make things. I’m amazed that the power of social media helped your situation. Such a shame it was needed though!

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