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5 Things to Expect After Leaving the NICU

A premature baby is nestled in an incubator at La Paz Hospital in Madrid, Spain.
A premature baby is nestled in an incubator at La Paz Hospital in Madrid, Spain.
DCL

Bringing home your baby from the neonatal intensive care unit, or NICU, can be both exciting and terrifying. On one hand, it's an important milestone that shows your little one is healthy enough to survive without constant attention from the nurses, doctors and special equipment in the hospital's nursery. On the other, the child is now completely dependent on you, and that can be intimidating -- especially if you're feeling unsure of exactly what you need to do to protect this fragile new life.

To help you adjust to this monumental new responsibility, we've organized a list of five things to expect after leaving the NICU. We'll help you get organized for your baby's countless upcoming appointments and give you advice on what to do with jealous older siblings.

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When you and your little one first come home from the NICU, it's probably going to be a little stressful. You're almost certainly not going to be getting out very much; preemie babies need to be sheltered as much as possible for the first few weeks. Be sure to limit your baby's exposure to the outside world, and except for doctor's visits, don't take him or her to any public places.

You'll also have to observe your infant carefully, especially if he or she is suffering from apnea or any other breathing issues. Infections are another cause for concern, and a typical, shrug-it-off illness like the common cold or a minor flu can be a major problem for preemies since their immune system isn't fully developed yet. Therefore, if your baby seems at all under the weather after you get home, you need to contact his or her pediatrician immediately.

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In 2004, Rumaisa Rahman was the world's smallest surviving baby. This little girl, weighing in around 8.6 ounces, captures attention at a media conference at Loyola University Medical Center in Maywood, Ill.
In 2004, Rumaisa Rahman was the world's smallest surviving baby. This little girl, weighing in around 8.6 ounces, captures attention at a media conference at Loyola University Medical Center in Maywood, Ill.
DCL

If there's one thing you can be sure of after leaving the NICU, it's that you're going to be asking a lot of questions. You'll have questions for the doctors, nurses and hospital staff before you're discharged and will undoubtedly have countless more once you arrive home. In fact, it's not a bad idea to write down some of your non-emergency inquiries and bring them up at your baby's next doctor's appointment.

For all other non-life-threatening questions, try consulting other preemie parents. The Internet is a wonderful tool for this kind of research, as many other people are or have been in your situation, and your question is almost certainly not unique. Dedicated preemie Web sites, support groups and message boards can offer insightful answers and advice for inexperienced preemie parents.

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Also, don't let your lack of knowledge stress you. Before you know it, you'll be the expert that parents are seeking for help and advice.

Even if you're one of those people who thrives on chaos, when you have a premature baby, it's important to get organized. In many ways, you're going to have to temporarily systematize your life for the well-being of your family's newest and littlest member.

Staying organized is key to keeping your baby on schedule for doctor's appointments. Even if your baby has none of the problems that commonly plague preemies, such as apnea and infections, these checkups and screenings will help identify and hopefully prevent any handicaps to your baby's developmental progress.

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Matthew Hirsh, who was born at just 28 weeks, is just one face on the March of Dimes tour at New York University Medical Center during Prematurity Awareness Month.
Matthew Hirsh, who was born at just 28 weeks, is just one face on the March of Dimes tour at New York University Medical Center during Prematurity Awareness Month.
DCL

When you come home from the NICU, you'll be spending a lot of time with your baby. Of course, it's perfectly normal for a mother and her newborn to bond, but preemies need more care than regular infants. If you have other children, it's only natural that they might be jealous of their new, attention-stealing sibling. However, there are ways to circumvent -- or, at the very least, minimize -- older children's envious emotions.

The best way to put their worried little minds at ease is to explain that it's only a temporary situation. They'll also feel better if you find ways to include them that make them feel important. Make them active contributors in caring for their new sibling. Depending on their ages and the kind of responsibility they can handle, let them help you feed, bathe and change the baby. They'll feel good about helping, and you'll be thankful for the assistance.

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Grappling with countless doctor's appointments, questions about caring for your preemie, jealous siblings and mandatory indoor confinement, you're going to feel overwhelmed. The time after leaving the NICU can be very stressful, and the only thing you can really do is just ride it out. But here's the most important thing you need to know: You can do it.

If you start feeling incompetent, unworthy or even just exhausted, remember that you're not the first parent to bring home a premature baby. The doctors wouldn't have allowed the little one out of the hospital if they weren't entirely convinced that he or she could make it in the outside world and that you were capable of providing adequate care. It's going to be stressful -- it might even be a little scary -- but you two are going to be OK.

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