These beautiful sunny days, and the fact that we celebrate 70 years of our wonderful NHS today has taken me back to almost three years ago when I entered the maternity ward on a beautiful July summer's day, 3 months before my baby's due date, and made it my new home until October.
It was an equally lovely week as we're enjoying now when I went in, and I had no idea that I was going to spend the entire summer watching my tiny premature little boy fight to come home. Once or twice I had the head space to feel sad that my plans to enjoy the last weeks of summer getting ready for my baby's arrival and having fun in the sun with my toddler daughter before welcoming her new sibling were taken away, but then I'd have a word with myself and focus on what really mattered - my fragile little baby boy who didn't even know what sunshine was yet.
I'm sure no time is easy to be in a Neonatal unit with a poorly or premature baby, but I think it feels particularly alien when the world outside is so bright and beautiful, and screams of laughter and enjoying life outside fill the air. Thinking back to my experience, I suddenly feel very aware that there are families going through just that right now while I enjoy beach time and picnics in the park with my little miracle, so I wanted to share some of the things that I did - or wish I'd done - to get through a summer in a neonatal unit.
1. The sunshine can be the best medicine for the mind. It may sound too simple to make a difference but take some time in the sunshine every day for a little boost of dopamine and serotonin to help to lift your mood. Maybe enjoy your morning coffee in the garden or on the bench in the hospital grounds before you venture into the confines of the NNU. Or take a walk outside while the doctors do their rounds. You need some time to process what's happening and the sunshine can help to make that a little easier to endure.
2. Go out for lunch as much as you can. The guilt may make you want to spend every waking moment by your baby's incubator, and there will be days when you just can't leave their side, but when you can get out of the grounds of the hospital and give yourself a proper break. Sit a while in a pub garden or the local park and get a little bit of normality back.
3. Ask a friend to take some time off work to meet for lunch - their life will be moving on like normal so without meaning to they may not think about the fact that you need them more than ever. If you don't have friends or family close by then see if any of the other mums on the unit would like to join you for a bit of respite. Around 6 weeks after I entered the unit I made a little group of NNU friends so we went for a daily 'coffini' - coffee and a panini - and it really was the most cathartic time, even on the hardest of days. It can be quite an isolating experience so reaching out to another mum may be just what they need too!
4. Decorate your baby's incubator or cot with bright and sunny pictures and patterns. Bring a little sunshine in and it will help to make the sterile hospital environment more beautiful for everyone. I also put together a play list of my favourite summer tunes and when things were quiet, or my little man wasn't well enough to come out for a cuddle, I could sit for hours just watching him whilst absorbed in the music. It helped to keep my mind busy and lighter than being lost in my own thoughts.
5. Take some treats in for you and the hospital staff. Strawberries, cakes (a favourite in our NNU) or chocolate treats all help to make breaks away from the cot side a little more enjoyable. You may not be able to take them into the room with your baby, but you can hopefully leave them on the NNU reception desk and pop by every so often for a treat and a chat with the amazing staff of the NNU.
6. Try not to feel guilty for taking some time away, especially if you have other little ones at home who need you. There will always be times when this isn't possible or you just need to be in the hospital around the clock, but make some time for a bit of normal life. I put aside a day each week that was for my toddler daughter. On that day we'd go into the hospital together to drop off milk and say hello for half an hour or so. Then we'd have breakfast in the hospital cafe and go to the park nearby. She got my full attention for a big part of the day, but I knew I wasn't far away if I needed to get back. It was harder to do this as my little man grew more alert and could spend more time getting cuddled, because I knew he'd need me more, but while he was still very much in the care of the NICU team making time just for her was something I cherished.
7. Have flowers and treats at home to make it a little easier to come away. It feels like you leave a part of your heart in the hospital every time you leave your baby there so some brightness at home may help to lift your mood. You may not have time to get these yourself so perhaps ask your partner or friends and family to pick some up for you whenever they can. They'll probably be happy they can help in some small way!
Whatever you do during your stay in the Neonatal, remember that you can be stronger for your baby if you take a little bit of time to look after yourself and your well being too.
Happy 70th birthday to the amazing, life-saving NHS! Thank you for saving my baby. #NHS70 long may we celebrate one of the best things about this country. Sending love and strength to those parents, babies and amazing staff in Neonatal units this summer.