Imagine caring for a newborn baby. Now imagine that baby was only in the womb for 26 weeks, weighs less than 5lbs, and has a host of serious medical issues. That’s what NICU nurses have to deal with on every one of their extremely busy days -- and that's just the babies. Parents often require their own level of very special care, and guess who's also called in for that? Yep -- NICU nurses. We spoke to nurses around the country (thanks, Association of Women's Health, Obstetric and Neonatal Nurses!) to find out what heroic lengths these men and women go to.
1. They’re actually in charge of someone’s life
The first responsibility of a NICU nurse is to ensure the child’s survival. The stakes are high and they’re caring for some very fragile lives. Kinda puts that PowerPoint presentation in perspective, huh?
2. They basically have to be body language experts
News flash: babies can’t talk! And premature babies aren’t as expressive as full-term babies can be. NICU nurses have to be able to read very subtle behavioral cues. For example, some babies may keep their eyes closed but they’ll let you know what they need with their hands. If their eyes are open and they look away, that means they’re not interested in whatever it is you’re selling. Hint: hiccups often mean the same thing!
3. They also have to care for the parents
New parents look to NICU nurses for miracles. And sometimes those miracles just aren’t possible. The doctors come to deliver news and it’s up to the NICU nurses to comfort the parents and hug them (in a non-creepy way). The nurses have to earn the parents’ trust and prove that the baby is in good hands. They also have to teach the parents how to read those subtle body language cues, change a smaller-than-usual diaper, and care for a baby with way more needs than a full-term baby.
4. Caring for an NICU baby is extremely complicated
Premature babies can be 5lbs or less. That means all their little baby body parts are extra small, which makes it extra hard for NICU nurses to do their jobs. The nurses even have a special flashlight-like device to shine through the baby’s skin to help them find veins and breathing tubes that are the size of a straw. NICU nurses have to have spot-on hand-eye coordination because one slip of a finger can be cause for a code red.
5. The doctors get all the credit
Parents are always quick to thank the doctors for saving their baby’s life, but it’s the nurses who are there 24-7. They’re the ones who watch the monitors and constantly assess the baby for changes. The nurses are the ones who let the doctors know of any critical changes.
6. There’s a boatload of paperwork
Documentation is a major part of a NICU nurse’s daily job. Every single thing has to be charted on each patient. Every diaper is weighed. The nurses add up how much fluid goes into the baby and count how many times they wipe a certain part of each baby. It can be exhausting just doing every little thing the baby needs -- and then it all needs to be documented.
7. If they mess up, they can be sued
People seem to be pretty litigious these days, so just imagine the situation when babies are involved. One mistake and a NICU nurse isn’t just worried about getting fired; she’s worried about the baby’s life and, of course, a lawsuit. This is when that crazy documentation process can come in handy.
8. There’s not much downtime
Like checking Instagram and running errands during the day? There’s not much time for that during a shift for a NICU nurse. They’re always paying attention to the babies, the monitors, and the random tubes going in and out of these kids. NICU nurses usually have to ask another nurse to cover just so they can go to the bathroom.
9. Shifts are crazy long
A 12-hour shift is long no matter how you cut it. Some days go faster than others (usually when there’s a super sick baby who needs extra attention/more work). Breaks are based off what is going on with the babies (all of them in the unit), not when you’re hungry or need a coffee. And some facilities have limited windows, so it’s extremely possible that a NICU nurse could fail to see the outside world for an entire day.
10. Discharge is good -- but also annoying
Letting a baby go home is obviously a great thing, but there’s a ton of work that has to be done before it can be wheeled out of the building. The NICU nurse is in charge of planning the baby’s schedule, and there can’t be too many things planned for the same day because it will freak the baby out. Among the laundry list of things that have to happen: immunizations, an eye exam (for smaller babies), circumcision (for boy babies!), CPR and feeding classes with the parents, and more. Plus, saying goodbye to a baby isn’t always the easiest thing.