Christmas season can be difficult for parents who have babies in the NICU. The neonatal intensive care unit can be a lonely place for a child to spend their holiday season, and parents spend as much time as they can visiting this time of year. But when hospitals inject a little more holiday spirit into the occasion, it can do wonders to help parents and their babies connect.
When April Neal gave birth to her first baby, Wyatt, in early November, she wasn’t excited and joyful like a mother is supposed to be. Instead, she was filled with worry because Wyatt came into the world 13 weeks before his due date.
“It is so overwhelming,” Neal told TODAY. “It is incredibly challenging to see your baby like that.”
He has had to spend a lot of time in the NICU as health care providers give him the care he needs to be strong enough to go home with April and the family.
Neal developed preeclampsia and dangerously high blood pressure near the end of her pregnancy. This inspired the doctors to deliver Wyatt early via an emergency C-section. Wyatt has faced a lot of problems since then. His birth weight was low, he had trouble breathing, and his tiny heart had a murmur.
Doctors were unable to give April much hope. They didn’t want to give out a long-term prognosis. And they didn’t know if he would be able to go home before Christmas.
“It’s so scary,” Neal said. “I don’t know where the strength comes from.”
Besides dealing with the challenges of a premature birth, Neal and her husband Nathan are disappointed that they won’t be able to give their son a joyous first Christmas. She dreamed of taking Wyatt to see Santa Claus and have him open gifts with the family.
“I always, always enjoy the holidays,” she said. “This year I have been so dedicated to Wyatt, there is no Christmas tree, no Christmas lights.”
Then Wyatt’s hospital gave Neal an amazing surprise. Santa Claus was coming to visit the NICU at the Texas Children’s Hospital Pavilion for Women in Houston.
This revived her holiday spirit. And as soon as she could, Neal bought Wyatt a Christmas outfit.
And as she was dressing him for his visit with Santa, Neal realized a strange fact about her one-month-old son.
“He has only been in diapers,” she said. “That was the first time I saw him in clothes. I know that is so weird.”
Santa has visited the Houston hospital three years in a row. And the assistant clinical director of the NICU Kellie Kainer thinks it is important for families with babies in the NICU to keep their holiday traditions as alive as possible.
“You don’t get the first Santa pictures that everyone wants,” she said. “We always try to make the holidays special. It is very challenging to have a baby in the NICU.”
Not every NICU baby can wear clothes. Neal understands that Wyatt is lucky.
“It’s so wonderful to see these programs be able to come in and normalize the experience as much as we can,” Kainer said.