Photo taken by Krista Gantt.

Tarra Ashton’s letter is addressed simply and tenderly, “Dear NICU Mama.” What follows is wisdom she gained from having two daughters begin life in the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) at Novant Health Hemby Children’s Hospital in Charlotte.

Maggie Ashton was born at 34 weeks on July 23, 2021. After 15 days in the NICU, she went home. Today, her love of pasta, pizza and smoothies is helping her grow up big and strong. “You’d never know she was premature,” Ashton said. Maggie is a big sister to Adair, who spent 19 days in the NICU after being born at 34 1/2 weeks on Dec. 22, 2022. Adair is also doing great. Pizza awaits. She isn’t ready to tackle solid food.

Love. Hope. Fear. It all comes at you in the NICU. When it came at her twice, Tarra felt called to help other families navigate the journey.

Here, then, is the letter Tarra, 31, posted on Instagram, sent out via email and text, and now shared with Healthy Headlines. It has been edited just a bit here and there. There are 11 pieces of advice, supplemented by counsel she articulated in a telephone call. She had to talk fast. Naps and feedings, you understand.

Find a great pediatrician for your family.

Start here

1. When you leave the hospital for the first time and it feels weird because your baby is not with you, this is normal. Know that your child is in great hands, and you will be able to come back to see them soon.

2. Every baby’s journey is different. It’s easy to compare and feel like they should be further “ahead.” Your baby will get there when they are ready. Every little step of progress is worth celebrating along the way/

3. It’s easy to feel guilty for not being there “enough” when your newborn is in the NICU. But it is important to take care of yourself, too. The NICU is the best place for your baby right now. Take advantage of this time to rest, heal, eat right and exercise if you can. The operative word, Tarra told Healthy Headlines, is SLEEP.

4. I know you’re eager, but you don’t want your baby to come home before they are ready, or you will end up back in the hospital. When they get home, you might be a nervous wreck, so remind yourself that they wouldn’t have been sent home if they weren’t ready. Your medical team knows best. Trust them.

5. Give yourself grace. Give your premature baby grace, they should still be in your womb. They may not be doing the same things full-term babies are doing. That’s OK. One day they will “catch up.” Don’t rush it. Try to avoid Googling for medical information. If you have questions, ask your physician.

6. When you see other mamas in the lobby of the hospital leaving with their child in their arms, it’s OK to be sad. You can mourn what was “supposed to be” and recognize that your story may look different now. I remember feeling guilty when I got to go home with my babies and other mamas didn’t. Don’t try to run from your emotions. Accept them.

7. Your baby will leave the NICU on a feeding schedule and be able to sleep through light and noise. Having a schedule, knowing when you’ll have time to brush your teeth and perform life’s daily routines, is a blessing. As for your baby handling light and noise, our daughter Maggie could sleep through Sunday worship, including the music.

8. Advocate for your baby. If you want to breastfeed, make it known. Even though it might be more work for the nurses, they will make it happen if it’s important to you. Call ahead to the NICU front desk and find out when it’s convenient to breastfeed so you can plan your pumping schedule. Or breastfeed there.

9. . Don’t hesitate to ask questions about the process and progress along the way. Call every morning to check on feeding schedules if you want to be there for a feed. They tend to change the times depending on staff and other baby’s needs.

10. All the cords and wires in the NICU make every task tougher. Changing a diaper when you get home will seem like a piece of cake! (Tarra did not hesitate when asked who changes the diapers at home. She and her husband, Nolan. “With two, it takes two,” she said.)

11. Whatever the challenge in life, including having a newborn in the NICU, don’t get down on yourself. You are juggling a lot right now, so be kind to yourself. Know that you are the best mama to your baby. Don’t ever doubt that.