How do you manage stress? Attending school as an older student or pursuing a second career can be stressful. Being a caregiver for aging parents or other family members while working and taking classes can be stressful. Trying to balance parenting and being a nursing or pre-nursing student can be stressful. Do you have a strategy for handling such stress?
My work enrolled me in training last year, where this stress buster wheel was presented and discussed. The stress buster wheel captures evidence-based strategies for toxic stress intervention. The training was for caregivers and healthcare workers to screen and treat patients for Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs). However, the stress-buster strategies are an excellent reference for anyone experiencing stress. Do you employ any of these strategies for yourself? Are there ones you’d like to try or implement more?
I like combining several stress busters by going on garden walks or hikes through nature with friends. I connected with a friend (outside of school or class) at least weekly during nursing school to maintain supportive relationships. This helped bring balance into my life, especially when I sometimes felt consumed by my intense 15-month accelerated BSN program. Now that I’ve graduated, I continue this practice to connect with friends regularly.
I viewed this coaching/motivational video (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oDzfZOfNki4) by Duke Women’s Basketball’s Kara Lawson about how we need to “Handle Hard Better.” I share this post and video to motivate you as we reflect and head toward the weekend. Things get more challenging as we grow, develop, and learn. We become more skilled and adept at facing what’s in front of us. Again, things didn’t get easier – we just got better! We learned to handle hard better.
Another way to look at it: Walking was once difficult, but once I mastered that, I learned to use the stairs, jump, and eventually run. Once we become comfortable handling what we once thought was a challenge, it’s time to take on a new challenge to continue our growth and development. I didn’t even get “comfortable” with my old job or feel like I “mastered” it, yet I left and started a new one! I left my previous NICU (Level 2) to move to a higher acuity NICU (Level 4) because I knew I wanted to be able to handle more seriously ill patients.
I completed my first week with my preceptors at my new job, and it was a little overwhelming. Moving from a Level 2 NICU to a Level 4 NICU feels like a big jump. There’s so much to learn! In some ways, I feel like a new grad nurse all over again and have to familiarize myself with new equipment, processes, and diseases for my higher acuity patients. The video is a reminder to “handle hard better.” The way I handle hard better is to practice and expand my skills and to be willing to learn and open to coaching. I reflect on my performance and search for ways to improve. The way I handle hard is to do what I can to make myself better.
What does that look like for me? I am making report sheets or brains that work for me on my new unit and make me more efficient. I am learning about different disease processes by reading about them and watching YouTube videos. I am giving shift report even though I don’t feel like I’m ready because “doing” is better practice for me than “watching”. I’m learning the new charting system and what my new hospital requires for each shift. I’m learning about the workflow and general day-to-day schedule and expectations. I’m reflecting on my week by writing this post…and I’m giving myself grace that I’m still learning and will improve with more practice and time.
You may be hesitant to pursue a new job or career. You may be reluctant to go back to school. I am here to encourage you. I have met many second-career nurses, older students, and moms returning to college or joining nursing school since I became a nurse. My story is not unique. I share my life as a second-career nurse hoping to inspire others to pursue their dreams even when circumstances may seem hard. You can do it – you can “handle hard better”! Good luck on your journey!
NICU nurses in my hospital are responsible for putting IVs in our neonatal patients. We don’t have an IV team to do it for us, and often, our nurses are called to other units when other units have difficulty putting IVs in babies. Regardless, IV placement is an essential nursing skill, and putting IVs in infants is different than putting IVs in adults. For adults, I can usually see or palpate (feel) veins. For babies, it can be difficult to see veins, and I’ve never been able to palpate them. It had been a while since I placed an IV in a baby, so I asked and volunteered to do it for a colleague needing to replace an IV in her patient on my last shift.
I placed the IV in the patient, but not without almost giving myself a needle stick (I dropped the needle, and it rolled away from me before I could retract it) and having some blood splash from quickly releasing a used hub on a bedside table. I’ve never come close to giving myself a needle stick, nor have I created such a mess from attempting to place an IV. Senior nurses were present to help me hold down the baby and hold up a vein finder. I felt like I was fumbling through the process with an audience. I hadn’t worked with these nurses before to place an IV because I was still new to the night shift. And while I eventually got the IV in, I felt foolish with how long it took and how I splashed blood on the table. I’m embarrassed that this is the first impression I’ve given these nurses on my IV skills. In a way, however, it was confirmation that I needed the practice.
While I was placing the IV on my colleague’s patient, the IV on my patient stopped working and needed replacement. As soon as I placed the IV on my colleague’s patient, I hurried to my patient’s isolette. I attempted to put a new IV on my patient, got it during my second attempt (the vein blew during the first attempt), but then accidentally pulled out the catheter as I tried to remove the tape and Tegaderm to retape the IV. It had stopped flushing smoothly, and the other nurse and I thought we could retape it to prevent it from getting kinked or occluded. As a guideline, a different nurse should take over the IV placement after two unsuccessful attempts. I stopped with further IV attempts on my patient beyond my two tries but got the lesson to remove tape individually so as not to pull out an entire catheter when retaping. (I had initially tried pulling off the tape before the Tegaderm, but it was hard to separate it from the Tegaderm). My colleagues eventually got a new IV in my patient. I appreciate the teamwork, but I still feel embarrassed by how I kept “messing up.”
I wanted IV practice on my last shift, and the universe gave me multiple chances! As humbling as my previous shift was, I realize the only way to improve my nursing skills is with experience and practicing essential skills: I will be more consistent and successful at putting in IVs only by putting in more IVs. Luckily, NICU nurses support each other and help and assist one another during IV placements. However, there are times when the unit is busy, and nurses may not always be available to help each other. I want to feel more confident with doing IV placement alone. I will have to request to do IVs whenever there is a chance.
Sometimes, it feels weird to be older and yet so new in work experience. I must remind myself and give myself the grace that I am still relatively new to my profession. There’s a lot I’m still learning to do that senior nurses do effortlessly and automatically. And even the most experienced nurses make mistakes or are sometimes unable to get an IV placed on the first try. I can’t expect perfection, but I can at least aim for improvement.
I came home from my shift this morning and had a strange moment feeling lost without my hospital PPE in my own home. Before I could even shower, I had to take on the dreaded parenting task of cleaning up my child’s vomit. My daughter wasn’t feeling well, so she decided to stay home from school during the intended morning drop-off and vomited in her car seat before returning home. In an instant, I wished I had access to everything I would have had at work.
Luckily, my daughter took it in stride and was patient while I searched for gloves and wipes to clean up the vomit. I was still wearing my scrubs but wished I also had access to a gown and toothpaste sandwiched between two surgical masks (a trick I learned in dealing with malodorous tasks or patients). I tried not to make faces as I collected and cleaned up the mess. In the hospital, I could’ve hidden my face behind [two] masks to obscure any traces of disgust. This morning, I hope I showed concern and care for my daughter over being grossed out while I wiped off her partially digested breakfast from her body and car seat.
I briefly wondered why this seemed harder than work. I clean up vomit and poo as part of my job, but an infant vomiting breast milk or formula is very different than an elementary student throwing up solid food. When a NICU baby vomits, it’s rarely due to the stomach flu or communicable illness. When my school-age child vomits, I wonder and hope I don’t catch what she has. Cleaning up and wiping down a plastic bassinet or hospital crib is much simpler than washing a car seat. I also don’t have access to a hospital laundry bin at home. It is much more convenient for someone else to collect and wash soiled materials I place in a blue plastic bag than for my husband and me to clean and hand-wash clothing and a car seat drenched in vomit.
My daughter is doing better, thank goodness. I’m feeding her lunch while I type this (and hoping she keeps it down). My husband and I get to figure out how to care for her the rest of the day while I’m supposed to be sleeping, and he’s supposed to be working. Ahhh – the realities of being a working parent and night-shift nurse. Here’s to hoping my daughter continues to feel better and that my husband and I don’t get sick!
Across the country, the school year has started for many college students. Students might wonder how to stay organized or manage their time. When I began the journey to become a second-career nurse, I was balancing school, work, parenting, and my personal life. Having a planner was critical for me to manage my time. Below is a list of seven things I included in my planner and recommend students to include in theirs – the last one may surprise you!
Class times. Put in all your scheduled lectures, discussion sections, clinicals, & labs.
Class dates of quizzes, exams, and project due dates. Take the syllabus at the beginning of the semester or quarter and jot down when all the quizzes, exams, practicums, & project deadlines are taking place. Use a different color or shape to identify these in your calendar quickly. I would use blue for quizzes and red for exams or significant projects. The color coding allowed me to easily see when something was coming up and when I needed to study or prepare for something that would impact my grade.
Commute time. I live in Los Angeles, and sometimes commutes can take an hour or more to/from school or work. It’s important to factor this in if commutes can be lengthy in your area, especially if you are responsible for daycare or preschool drop-offs & pickups. Remember to factor in parking as well since that may add to the time it takes to get to a destination. Some people have to park in a garage or lot far from the building where they work, have classes, or have clinical. One of my clinicals took place in a hospital that was a 15-20 minute walk through a tunnel and stairways from the parking lot where we were assigned. If you forget to factor in the extra time it takes to park and walk to your destination, you can end up being late.
Other family members’ schedules. Your family’s schedule is essential. I put in when my parents need me to give them rides to doctor’s appointments or dental procedures. I also add my husband’s business trips (meaning I’m single-parenting my daughter while he travels) or when my daughter has dance, sports, religious education, classmate birthday parties, or school events.
Meals, sleep, & shower/hygiene schedule. If you need 6-8 hours of sleep to function, make sure you schedule it in your calendar. I say this because my targeted bedtimes would sometimes surprise me based on how early I’d need to get up for my commute, etc. Sleep schedules are also important to note if you have children or other family members who require your help to get ready for bed or to get ready for their day.
Study time. The other mom in my nursing program and I found it challenging to study at home once our kids were out of school. I sometimes booked a private room in a library or computer lab to study. Mostly, I would use my spare time to read or do homework between classes or before class if I arrived at school early. I recommend scheduling studying time to realistically determine how much time you have to study, especially if you have other competing obligations such as family or work.
Events or activities that nourish me or bring me joy. I also color-coded these events or activities to quickly glance at my calendar and see that I planned something fun each week. This one activity was not an obligation or part of a busy to-do checklist of duties. It was something I looked forward to doing and had nothing to do with school. I recommend including at least one weekly activity that replenishes you and brings you joy or comfort. Make it happen. The activity could be family game night, happy hour, facetime with a long-distance friend, attending a party, reading a book, yoga, hiking, painting, baking, massage, seeing a musical, or going on a mini-retreat. Each person has different interests and things that bring them joy. Make sure you know what that is for yourself. Ensure you are doing something for yourself at least once a week that helps you reset. You may be a student balancing many things in life, but you’re not a robot. You are a human and have other interests and desires outside of school. Make sure you regularly do things that light you up!
When I had my baby, my husband and I struggled to feed our newborn. I wanted to breastfeed my baby exclusively, but she would not breastfeed well. Influenced by various sources and committed to breastfeeding, I refused to pump or bottle-feed my baby while in the hospital. My baby and I roomed in together while I tried to breastfeed. My husband recalls having to travel with my baby somewhere for light therapy. I vaguely remember this too, but I was tired, delirious from lack of sleep, and recovering from a C-section. I only remember sleeping while my husband and baby were out of the room. In retrospect, my baby most likely went to the NICU because she was jaundiced. She may have been there for only a few hours because I remember waking when my baby and husband returned from wherever they went. Thankfully, the hospital did not admit my baby to the NICU, and we could leave the hospital together. However, our struggles to feed our newborn continued when we got home. Looking back at our experience as new parents, I wish I had known some things about feeding our baby that I know now as an experienced mom and NICU nurse.
Fed is Best
As a NICU nurse, I see term or late pre-term infants (born at 34-37 weeks gestation) who come to our NICU for hypoglycemia (low blood sugar) or hyperbilirubinemia (seen as jaundice/yellowish skin). Often, these term babies come to our unit because they are not eating well. For some babies, parents refuse to feed baby formula while postpartum, and the mom may not have established her breastmilk supply yet. This description reflected us as newborn parents and a likely reason why my baby needed phototherapy.
A build-up of bilirubin in a baby’s body can cause jaundice. Bilirubin is usually processed by the liver and leaves the body as waste. A newborn’s liver may not yet efficiently function, but the baby should be eating/drinking something to produce waste and encourage processing out bilirubin. A newborn baby drinking breastmilk or formula helps curtail jaundice. If a baby is not feeding well or is still jaundiced despite attempted feedings, however, hospitals can treat elevated bilirubin levels (hyperbilirubinemia) through light phototherapy.
Jaundice is normal in newborns, but the hospital monitors bilirubin levels and treats when levels rise above certain thresholds. If the baby’s bilirubin is too high, brain damage can occur. In our hospital, if a postpartum baby needs phototherapy, the baby is admitted to the NICU. Phototherapy in the NICU only happens after multiple attempted feedings and when bilirubin levels exceed treatment thresholds.
Frequent feedings are how parents can reduce bilirubin levels in otherwise healthy babies (and hopefully prevent hyperbilirubinemia that requires NICU care). However, frequent feedings can also help prevent another common condition in our NICU: hypoglycemia, or low blood sugar. If an otherwise healthy baby born to a non-diabetic mom takes enough breastmilk or formula, the baby can usually avoid hypoglycemia. However, if the baby is unable to feed adequately, the baby can develop low blood sugar.
Before a baby goes to the NICU for hypoglycemia treatment and monitoring, the mother and the postpartum staff will attempt to feed the baby. If the mother consents, the baby can be offered formula. If bottle-feeding is still insufficient, a sugar gel is given to the baby orally. The postpartum unit will attempt several feeding and sugar gel administrations before the baby goes to the NICU. If the NICU admits a baby for hypoglycemia, we will place an IV to deliver sugar to the baby as IV fluids. Once the sugar levels in the baby are sufficient, and the baby is drinking adequately, we can reduce the IV fluids and eventually remove IV fluids if the baby can orally consume the needed calories and fluids while maintaining healthy blood sugar and hydration. In the NICU, we try feeding our babies breastmilk if it’s available and not contraindicated (i.e., substance-abusing mother). If breastmilk is unavailable and we need to feed a baby orally, we will give provider-ordered formula to our babies.
For babies admitted for hyperbilirubinemia or hypoglycemia, I sometimes hear the baby barely drank anything because the baby was unable to breastfeed from a mom who wanted only to breastfeed exclusively. Before doctors send the baby to the NICU, the nurses can offer the baby formula if the mom consents or requests it. However, by this time, the baby may have worn themselves out or be too tired to drink from the bottle. It makes me and other NICU nurses wonder, “If the parent or nurses fed the baby from the bottle sooner, would the baby still need to go to the NICU? Is the mother promptly informed of her options if her milk supply hasn’t come in or the baby cannot latch or breastfeed?”
While I’m glad my husband got to go with my baby and accompany her for phototherapy, I would have preferred that my baby not leave my postpartum room at all for treatment or tests. To prevent my daughter from needing to leave our room, I would have pumped sooner to encourage my milk supply and produce milk that my husband or I could bottle-feed my baby. We did not learn until weeks later that my daughter was tongue- and lip-tied, which may have initially made it difficult for her to breastfeed. From my perspective, it’s better to feed a newborn some formula to keep the baby with mom and out of the NICU than to rely solely on breastmilk that may not be available yet or difficult for the baby to access.
Pumping is Okay
I was offered to pump in the hospital but refused, thinking I would breastfeed. My doula recommended not to pump until after the first month, so I tried holding off on pumping in an attempt to have my baby latch, help establish our breastfeeding rhythm, and set my breastmilk supply.
I didn’t want to feed her from a bottle because I didn’t want to cause nipple confusion and have my baby prefer the bottle over breastfeeding. When we got home, I thought I was doing okay breastfeeding, but when we brought our baby to her 1-week checkup, she wasn’t gaining enough weight. We brought her to her 2-week checkup, and her pediatrician still didn’t think she was gaining enough. My daughter fell in the 2nd percentile on the growth chart. (I did not discover until months later that my husband and his siblings were so small as newborns they were not even on the growth chart). We were strongly encouraged to start bottle feeding her formula.
Wrought with guilt, we decided to feed her some formula, and I began to pump. By this time, I had developed mastitis (Mastitis is a painful infection in the breast caused by bacteria introduced by breastfeeding. It also caused me to have body aches, a high fever, and chills. Imagine dealing with this while trying to care for a newborn!) My supply was woefully insufficient, and most of my daughter’s caloric intake was formula once I started to pump while battling mastitis.
Formula is Okay
It is okay to use formula if you are not producing breast milk or enough breast milk/colostrum to feed your baby. I wanted to exclusively breastfeed because I learned about the benefits of breastfeeding and how it’s the best, natural, and easiest way to feed my baby. It’s great for baby bonding and helps provide passive immunity to the baby. However, I got mastitis TWICE within the first month or so of my daughter’s life. We also learned my daughter was tongue-tied, making it difficult for my daughter to breastfeed. Not until later did I meet other mothers who breastfed AND bottle-fed their babies or moms who exclusively pumped. (Moms who exclusively pump only feed their babies breastmilk from a bottle). Had I not been so attached to exclusively breastfeeding, I could have adapted and explored these other options earlier as a new parent.
Do What’s Best for You and Your Family
Aside from taking antibiotics, the way to clear a mastitis infection from the breast is by breastfeeding or pumping. My daughter preferred the bottle by this time, so I relied on pumping to clear my infection. Pumping (and antibiotics) eventually relieved the pain and released the mastitis in my breasts, but the repeated infections impacted my supply. Encouraged by my doula, I remember three days where I spent about 9 hours pumping (diligently pumping 45 minutes every 2 hours, per her recommendation) only to produce about 1 ounce of breastmilk daily. I was so exhausted and upset by the results of my efforts. I also felt cut off from my daughter while I pumped (Because I couldn’t figure out how to safely hold her with all the pumping tubes hanging from my body, my husband or parents would take her while I pumped). After the three days dedicated to pumping round-the-clock, I decided it was not worth it to continue to pump. It was more important for me to be with my baby than to try giving her my pumped breastmilk.
I still held out hope for breastfeeding. Once my infection cleared, I tried to breastfeed my daughter using an SNS (supplemental nursing system – a tube placed on the breast but connected to a bottle to measure and ensure the baby has adequate intake). She was already used to the bottle nipple and did not take to the SNS. I attempted multiple times, but she would refuse to feed through the SNS, and I would end up with formula spilling all over my chest.
I share a bit of my breastfeeding journey to emphasize that there are many ways to feed and nourish a baby. In the end, so long as the baby is healthy and safe, parents decide what works best for them and their family. The caregivers’ mental health and well-being are as important as the baby’s. The way you choose to care for your baby may not resemble how other families do things, and that’s okay. I was ashamed for not breastfeeding my daughter for as long and in the way I hoped, but I felt my attachment to breastfeeding distanced my baby from me and caused so much anxiety and distress. Parents should not be ashamed of doing what is best for them and their families.
In the NICU, I meet moms who feel nervous they cannot directly breastfeed, yet they can pump and produce enough breastmilk to meet their baby’s needs. I meet parents who are ashamed they don’t have a separate nursery for their baby. We live in Los Angeles – not every family can afford to pay for a home with different bedrooms for each of their children! Many of our parents rely on WIC because they can’t afford to purchase formula. Getting formula from WIC is better than diluting formula or not feeding the baby enough nutritious calories. I try to assure the parents I see they can do what works for their family – it doesn’t need to match other families.
I felt defeated when I finally gave up pumping and breastfeeding. I wish I gave myself a little grace as a newborn mom and wasn’t so hard on myself. I felt so much grief over my inability to mother and feed my child as I thought I should that it made me feel inadequate as a mom. I was separated from my baby while I pumped, trying to salvage any breastmilk I had. I cried every day when I was pumping or trying to breastfeed. Ultimately, I fed my baby adequately, thanks to formula, and my child is now a healthy school-age girl. She still falls on the low end of the growth chart, but her father and I are not tall, so my daughter’s standard is the tenth percentile or less.
As I reflect on my experience as a new mom, I hope to impart grace and support to other new parents now that I’m a NICU nurse. If a caregiver is feeding their baby adequately, caring for and bonding with them, and keeping them safe, I want them to know they are doing a great job! I also want them to know it’s okay to make adjustments as needed or change their minds about how they want to do things. Parents can adapt their plans according to the family’s needs.
I originally wrote this post to give insight on how to lower the likelihood of hyperbilirubinemia or hypoglycemia (and admission to the NICU) through frequent feedings. If this information helps reduce NICU admissions and prolong in-room bonding between caregiver and baby, I would be ecstatic. Ultimately, I hope this post reassures parents (and serves as a reminder to myself) that there are many ways to care for a baby. There are no perfect parents; there are no perfect children. We’re just doing our best with the information and resources we have. Good luck to you on your journey!
Every once in a while, NICU families will bring treats or food for the nurses as a thank you. It’s [literally] such a sweet gesture. This past week, a family brought in fancy doughnuts, and they were the prettiest doughnuts I had seen, so I took a picture.
However, the sweetest gesture I wanted to remember from this past week was not what we received as nurses but what one family did for another family in the NICU. Due to supply chain shortages, our unit has run short on nursing bottles and caps and can’t give as many away to our patients’ families. Moms use these bottles to pump and store breastmilk for their babies to use while in the NICU. When our supply is limited, we recommend that families purchase and use milk storage bags as an alternative to the storage bottles.
One family overheard another talking about how it’s been hard to find the milk storage bags and how expensive they can be. The parents talked to the other parents and offered to bring them a box of bags. They brought them a box the next day. It was such a sweet thing to witness NICU families supporting other NICU families. Having a baby in the NICU can be challenging, so seeing our patients’ families support one another is reassuring that people can still be kind and thoughtful even when faced with difficult situations.
I have one more thing I want to remember/share from working this past Father’s Day weekend. (I hope everyone had a Happy Father’s Day – I’ll celebrate it late with my father and husband this week). I typically see mothers in the NICU more than I see fathers. Lately, I’ve seen a lot of dads visit with moms. In particular, one father of twin patients has been visiting and caring for his babies more frequently than the mother. The dad lets the twins’ mom continue to rest and recover while he travels to the hospital to bond with his babies. We didn’t make Father’s Day cards for the dads as we did for the moms of our babies for Mother’s Day. However, I hope the dads realize what a difference they are making by being in their child’s life and supporting their child’s mom. I know there are cultures where mothers are primarily responsible for parenting and the domestic duties of diapering or feeding a child. However, it’s been refreshing to see so many fathers involved in caring for their babies in our NICU.
I hope you can draw inspiration from the sweet moments you encounter in your work or training. Did you witness anything that inspired you this past week? Feel free to share in the comments!