Five Lessons from the NICU (That Any Parent Can Learn From)

When my oldest was discharged from the hospital at the same time as me, I took it as a given. I was mainly worried that because I’d gone into labor the slightest bit early, I hadn’t yet curated the perfect coming home outfit (for me that is–baby Kate was wearing an heirloom gown complete with a bonnet and booties).

Things were quite different for our next three babies. My discharge was a sad affair without a baby/babies in my arms. What anyone was wearing was not on my mind. Instead, anxiety and big logistical questions loomed.

I learned a lot of practical things from spending time in the NICU (such as how to do a swaddle bath), but it’s the bigger lessons from these transformative experiences that continue to impact my life every day.

Five Lessons from the NICU (That Any Parent Can Learn From)

Lindsay McGowan Photography 

1). Forget Some of What You’ve Read

With my first, I diligently followed a breastfeeding advice book. No pacifiers or bottles for at least the first month in fear of nipple confusion… and no formula. With my second, in the NICU, bottles were something to work toward. Pacifiers soothed her during the many pricks she endured and fortified formula helped her gain weight. The NICU helped me to see that things aren’t always so black and white.

2). Take it Day by Day

I cringe when I think about the times I used to ask NICU parents, “When is he/she coming home?” It’s a natural question to ask but a stressful one to answer. I see why nurses often respond by listing what the baby must do first instead of a timetable (the answer everyone wants). My babies were in longer than expected for their gestational age…key word being “expected”, which is what led to constant disappointments.

When I finally stopping focusing on a discharge day, things got easier. With a new baby in the NICU or not, take it a step at a time.

3). Let Go of Guilt That Isn’t Serving You

How are you supposed to spend your days when your baby is the NICU? There is no one right way to answer that, but boy can self-judgment come into play. Any time I was doing something enjoyable (donuts with my oldest, for instance) while my second daughter Adrienne was in the NICU, I would immediately feel guilty and it would cloud the experience.

I did a better job the second go-round by acknowledging the guilt and then reminding myself I was doing the best I could. There was no place for guilt in my carefully planned days. If I was with my babies, then I was giving it my all. At home, I tried to rest or spend quality time with my other children trusting that the “world’s most expensive babysitters” had it under control.

If you’re a new parent and are wondering if it’s okay to leave your baby for an outing, ask yourself what you want to do and don’t worry about if you should feel guilty or what others would think.

4). Celebrate Small Victories

It can be overwhelming to think of all the things your NICU baby needs to work on. You can also drown in information. That’s why it was so inspiring to see the nurses’ genuine excitement over my baby gaining 10 grams versus not losing weight, or only needing half a feeding through an NG tube. Milestones are not all about the big ones like crawling or walking and they may not happen when we expect them to… but babies give us reasons to step back and revel in their growth all the time.

5). Choose Gratitude

NICU parents are some of the most thankful people I know. Hearing how septic your baby is or watching helplessly as her oxygen and heart stats dip gives perspective. It makes the eventual sleepless nights at home easier. Birthdays can bring about a mix of emotions remembering hard times in the NICU, but I can guarantee that parent is mainly thinking about how lucky he or she is to get to watch that child grow.

Five Lessons from the NICU (That Any Parent Can Learn From)

Lindsay McGowan Photography 

This NICU Awareness Month, I am filled with pride. Proud to be in the same community as the University of Iowa Stead Family Children’s Hospital. Proud of how other families have used their experiences to give back. And proud of how far my babies have come.

Thank you to all of the nurses, doctors, and techs who helped our girls. We think of you often.

Five Lessons from the NICU (That Any Parent Can Learn From)Lindsay McGowan Photography 


Meg is a transplant to the Midwest. Originally a Louisiana native, she moved to Iowa with her family in the summer of 2016 for her husband’s residency program. She and Addison have four daughters: Kate, born November 2013; Adrienne, born December 2016; and, Elizabeth and Caroline, born November 2018. Meg is a University of Richmond grad with a PR, government affairs and community outreach background.


  1. This had me in tears! We just made it home from a month long NICU stay, and I can’t imagine how almond deal with even longer stays. I wish I had found this sooner, knowing it was ok to take time for myself and my other child was something I really needed to hear and the nurses finally got through my head. You put perfectly into words every emotion I felt during that time!

  2. Hi Jess,

    Congrats on making it home!! The NICU experience definitely stays with you afterward too— hope you are taking care of yourself now ❤️. There’s a local NICU support Facebook group too if that would be helpful.


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