10 Lessons I’ve Learned from Premature Babies in the NICU

August 21, 2011
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As a neonatal therapist, there is much to learn from practicing in the NICU. Our education and competence involve a breadth of medical and developmental knowledge. We learn from books, articles, mentors, colleagues, conferences, parents, and yes, the babies.

As a neonatal therapist, there is much to learn from practicing in the NICU. Our education and competence involve a breadth of medical and developmental knowledge. We learn from books, articles, mentors, colleagues, conferences, parents, and yes, the babies.

The information we learn outside of the NICU is vitally important. We can’t grow in our profession if we don’t seek out new evidence, practice, and skill. But we cannot overlook what we learn in every moment of interaction with the babies in the NICU.

Over time, these babies and their families have taught me more than I bargained for, more than I could’ve imagined.

Here are the top 10 lessons I’ve learned from premature babies:

  1. Being born early does not mean less – less human, less valuable, less worthy. ONLY less prepared.
  2. Premature babies do communicate in an individual yet dependable manner. I’ve learned that we all communicate differently and much of that depends on where we started.
  3. Small and feisty goes a long way.
  4. Bright lights and loud noises are stressful. How many times have I driven home from work with the radio OFF for this reason? It can be stressful for us too, and we don’t live there.
  5. There is nothing better for a baby than loving connection with her mother and family.
  6. Eating should be an enjoyable experience. (I think we can all agree on this! ☺) I’ve learned to really observe the babies I feed. Are they enjoying this? It matters.
  7. Tenacity comes in many forms. Some weighing less than a pound. Who am I to think I can’t achieve something?
  8. We are far from understanding many things about premature babies. Just when we think they’re predictable, they’re not. Consistent, intentional observation is a massively important tool for clinicians and parents alike. Premature babies have taught me over and over that I cannot just go by the book.
  9. Comfort and sleep are priceless to healing.
  10. There are times for fighting and times for letting go. On the letting go days, I know only to go home and hug my own children in humble gratitude. Loss is a powerful instructor. Life is precious, yes. But it is hard to comprehend the gravity of that truth until we watch it slip away before our eyes.
  11. Ok, this is a bonus lesson because I just couldn’t help it! Fragility and strength are not necessarily opposites. Just look around the NICU. Fragility is often just strength’s first teacher.

Some of these lessons seem simple and intuitive, but can be lost at times in the environment of an intensive care unit. I have rarely witnessed a population of patients that inspire such loyalty in their caregivers. Across disciplines, the NICU team appears, in my experience, to love this work.

Maybe because we have the best teachers.