For some families, the only lights this Christmas will be those of the NICU. Jingle bells will be replaced by alarm bells.
Indeed, for those that celebrate Christmas, a festive spell on a neonatal ward can be memorable, but often only because of the hardship it brings. While many families are celebrating together in the comfort of their homes, those parents with sick or premature children are out of their comfort zones and often out of others’ minds.
Tayla Esgate-Menear was one of those parents in 2019. Here, she shares her experience of Christmas in NICU.
Lilly’s unexpected first Christmas
In late 2019, Tayla’s daughter, Lilly, was born extremely preterm. “Lilly was born at 22+2 weeks after my waters ruptured at 21+4 weeks pregnant. We spent 141 days in Norfolk and Norwich University Hospitals NICU”, says Tayla.
Born on 9th December, Lilly’s vital, angst-inducing first few weeks spanned the festive period, something that Tayla admits was “almost a blur”.
“All Christmas celebrations stopped at home really; we ate, saw Lilly and slept.” In many ways, Christmas Day followed the same routine as the other 140 days that Lilly spent in neonatal care.
Yet there was one difference: “The nurses were fab,” says Tayla. “We had some gifts from past parents (and Santa!) and there was lots of chocolate! They made every day feel special really. They were cheerful and made it feel special being Lilly’s first Christmas.”
However, the mood in a neonatal unit can often be tense and fraught. Sure, there’s a time for smiles and laughs, but often it’s a place where the fragility of life is never more obvious. With that in mind, Tayla remembers the nurses and NICU staff not being “over the top”.
“We were not in the place to celebrate at that time after having a 22-weeker”, she explains.
“Cherish the memories made even if it was not as you expected.”Tayla Esgate-Menear
First Christmas, take two
Just weeks after celebrating her first birthday, Lilly is now preparing for Christmas – technically her second, but in many ways her first. Certainly the first the Esgate-Menear family will celebrate in the comfort and happiness of their home.
The plan? To make it as special as possible.
Tayla says she’ll do that “by cherishing every single moment with Lilly that last year I never thought I would have” with “over the top decorations and lots of happy memories made to help rewrite and move on from last year.”
And Tayla’s best piece of advice is to treat it like any other day and focus on the positives: “Take lots of photos; however hard it is to look at them in that moment, down the line you will cherish the memories made even if it was not as you expected. It gets easier.”
Twitter users have also been sharing their tips and advice for those finding themselves on neonatal units at this time of year:
Don’t feel bad if you can’t spend all day there and want / need to do things with other family. Make the time you have there special (the staff will help with that) and allow some time for yourselves too. Spent last Christmas in NICU with our 26 weeker, nurses were amazing 🎄❤️ pic.twitter.com/ob2bKYrySK— Michelle Matheron (@MicheyMathers) December 11, 2020
It will be very different but it will also be very special. We were overwhelmed by the gifts surrounding the incubator on Christmas morning from people we didn’t know, many of whom had had a baby in neonatal care at Christmas in previous years.— Claire Wenn (@ClaireWenn1) December 12, 2020
The amazing staff in the NICU will wish your little one a happy Christmas and try and make it as special and memorable as possible. Remember, next Christmas will be all the more special 💙💙— Mrs Dutton (@gemdutts) December 11, 2020
Spare a thought for those less fortunate
Even without the added stress brought to neonatal wards by the COVID-19 pandemic, Christmas can feel like a lonely time for those parents unable to celebrate in the usual fashion.
This Christmas, as you watch your children unwrap gifts or you raise a glass to enjoy a well-earned beverage, spare a thought for those families disrupted by prematurity.
And let’s also toast the miracle workers on neonatal wards around the world – the nurses, doctors, healthcare assistants, cleaners and porters who’ll give up part or most of their Christmas to care for sick babies.
We salute you all!