Dr. Jennifer Sedler, a third-year pediatrics resident at Stanford Pediatrics Residency Program, had just finished updating parents on their baby's progress in the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU), when she says she felt an "overwhelming sense of positivity" from their conversations.
"Hearing parents have such a sense of pride over their babies and the milestones they're accomplishing brought me so much joy, and so I wanted to spread that positivity," Sedler tells TODAY Parents. "I was also hoping that maybe others might start doing the same for their patients."
So Sedler sent out a tweet about her "new favorite hobby" — hyping up her NICU babies to their parents.
Sedler's tweet instantly went viral, as thousands of parents responded with their own NICU experiences.
"I absolutely never imagined that would be the response," Sedler says. "To be totally transparent, I teared up quite a few times reading these stories over the last few days."
Sedler plans on applying to specialize in cardiology, and was rotating through the NICU as part of her residency program and to ensure residents are trained in all aspects of pediatric care.
"There is just such a special energy about the NICU and about new life and supporting these families that makes it a really special place to work," Sedler adds.
Jessica Huston, 35, a real estate agent living in Alaska, knows the NICU all too well. Her now 15-month-old daughter, Ember — a surviving identical twin born at 24 weeks, 4 days gestation — spent 124 days in a neonatal intensive care unit in a hospital in Anchorage, Alaska. Huston, whose daughter was not a patient of Sedler's, says the daily "wins" her daughter's doctor's shared with her were invaluable.
"There were days in the NICU where Ember was 'maxed out' on support, meaning there was nothing left to help her," Huston tells TODAY. "It's honestly hard to articulate how important (hearing her 'wins') were to me. Some days I think they saved my life. Even on my hardest and saddest days, there was almost always something positive they could find to share with me. They helped me beyond words."
Studies have shown that NICU stays take a significant toll on parents' mental health. If a caregiver has a child in the NICU they are at a greater risk for experiencing anxiety, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) for months and even years.
"Anything that the NICU staff can do to help bring parents into the experience goes a long way because it fosters a sense of connection and attachment, at a time when mom and dad often feel grief around being separated from their newborn — physically and emotionally," Dr. Pooja Lakshmin MD, a psychiatrist and New York Times contributor specializing in women’s mental health, and the founder of Gemma, a digital education platform focused on women’s mental health, tells TODAY. "The process of learning to parent a newborn has a very steep learning curve, and fostering confidence and mastery goes a long way."
Sedler believes that the key to giving NICU parents that confidence is not sugar-coating the realities of a NICU stay.
"It's not about sugarcoating it or about providing false hope, because talking about the difficult news and the hard times it's important, too," she explains. "But there's both tangible and intangible victories in the NICU. There's the tangible things like weight gain and lab values. But then there's intangible things like, despite the procedure your baby had to have today they're being strong throughout it, or they're really fighting through this tough time."
Lakshmin believes that doctors sharing small “wins” is also one small way that NICU parents can “experience a similar developmental process that their peers who have taken a baby home from the hospital are experiencing on the outside,” providing a sense of “normalcy” in an otherwise overwhelming and disorienting.
"I think that positive energy really makes a difference for our patients," Sedler adds. "And I think that going about our lives in that same way, and calling out those little victories, is what's going to help get us through the tough times."
Huston recalls the morning rounds she did with her daughter's team of doctors, where they would share all of Ember's stats, what happened in the previous 24 hours — both good and bad — and what the doctors had planned for the next 24.
"There was a lot of celebrating in the rounds, also a lot of concerning talks," Huston adds. "The nurses and doctors were so good about trying to redirect me to be positive. To remain hopeful. They had faith and positive energy, for her and for me. So I used that and I really tried hard to be there with Ember and have a good positive attitude every day so she wouldn’t feel that negative energy."
Huston is still celebrating Baby Ember’s milestones, and is thrilled that they no longer center around whether or not she has had a bowel movement.
“You don’t know how important poop is, until you have a preemie,” she says. “Now, every day is an adventure. Every day is something new, and I’m so thankful to be able to get to this point.”
As for Sedler, she says she remains overwhelmed by the response to her tweet, and forever grateful for the parents who shared their own NICU experiences.
“At the end of the day, what went viral was not my tweet. It was all of these families who were sharing these incredibly inspirational stories of their time in the NICU and their successes,” Sedler says. “And to be able to share in that again in a different way with all these families I hadn’t met was so, so beautiful. And the fact that those stories were shared with so many people was a really beautiful thing."