Please join us on Tuesday, July 28, 2015, at 12 p.m. CST on the Hand to Hold Facebook page for an informative chat on Letting Go of the NICU Guilt. Dr. Cheryl A. Milford, Ed.S. will be our guest.
Being a parent in the NICU is a challenging and sometimes scary experience. In my 31 years working with NICU families I’ve seen the courage and strength it takes every day to parent your child during their hospitalization. NICU parents are the bravest people I have ever met – and I have learned so much from each of you.
It may surprise you to know that many NICU professionals feel the same as I do. But in my time in the NICU I have heard parents say things that aren’t true. These are what I call NICU myths: common, but incorrect beliefs that can affect mental and emotional health. These myths can make parents feel frightened, traumatized, and uncertain how to care for their baby. Once you learn how to recognize and dismiss these myths, you can find strategies that can help you cope and that will improve your mental and emotional health, as well as build confidence as a parent during your time in the NICU – and beyond.
Myth One: You did something wrong during your pregnancy to cause your child to be born preterm or critically ill.
Guilt and feelings of shame are not uncommon. But these feelings can increase your stress level significantly and interfere with your relationship with your baby, your family and the NICU staff. Remind yourself: You are the most important person in your baby’s life. No matter what happened before your child’s birth, you are doing your best. Forgive yourself. If you are having difficulty getting past this false belief or you feel family members are blaming you, talk to a NICU team member, parent support staff, your spiritual advisor or other family members.
Myth Two: Your relationship with your baby will suffer because you were separated during a critical time for attachment.
The relationship that develops between a parent and their child is an ongoing process. The idea that “bonding” only occurs immediately at birth has been disproven by research (Seigel, 2012). Being there for your child, talking to them, holding them, caring for them and singing to them over the next years will build a strong relationship in which you can be supportive of your child’s physical, psychological and cognitive development. Being sensitive to your child’s needs and wants is the basis of healthy attachment, not just in the NICU, but throughout their childhood.
Myth Three: Parents who complain, criticize, ask too many questions or are not always positive towards the NICU staff will receive care of lesser quality.
This sentiment has caused more problems for families and NICU staff members than any other myth. So let’s destroy this one, once and for all. No one on the NICU staff expects you to be positive and upbeat all the time. You are going through a scary experience with your child and you are going to feel a wide range of emotions, all of which are appropriate. No one expects you to immediately be comfortable in the NICU. The staff is there to help you and teach you about the NICU and your baby.
If you are having a bad day or feeling negative, talk to your baby’s team members. Tell them when you are uncomfortable and ask them for help in learning to care for your child and dealing with these feelings. Staff members should be caring and empathic as you express your emotions and your concerns.
Finally, the notion that staff will not take good care of your baby if you are not nice to them is incorrect and often keeps families from working together with their baby’s team in a respectful and trustful manner. Some NICU staff members may not seem as sensitive or empathic as others, but they are professionals and give the best care they can to every baby in the unit, no matter how the parents and family are behaving. If you feel that a particular staff member is not sensitive to your needs, you can discuss it with them and/or their supervisor. You have the right to feel respected, understood and appreciated as the baby’s parent.
Myth Four: Once your child is doing well, everything will get back to normal.
Many times family members and friends will say this out of love and wanting all the difficult and bad feelings and experiences to go away. The reality for all parents is that now there is a “new normal.” Your post-NICU life may or may not include months or years of therapy, appointments and diagnoses.
The truth is, while your child is doing well, you and your spouse are going to need time to recover and adjust to being parents. Spouses and siblings also need to be asked how they are feeling and how they can be supported, just as much as the mother.
Myth Five: Once you leave the NICU, you will forget the experience.
You will never forget your NICU experience, no matter the age of your child. I have talked to parents whose NICU child is now 40 and 50 years old. It takes years to process what has happened to you and your family, and the experience becomes integrated into who you are and how you view the world. Often, talking to other parents who have had a child with a NICU hospitalization can be helpful. If you are not sleeping well, eating properly, or are feeling depressed or confused, tell someone you trust. There are many people who can help you. It is natural for us to want the difficulties, feelings and concerns to go away. But trying to dismiss the experience often makes it much harder to accept.
Remember, you are not alone
The above 5 myths are very common in the hearts and minds of NICU parents. If any of these thoughts have ever run through your head, know that you are not alone. Once you learn how to recognize and dismiss these thoughts, you can find strategies that can help you cope and that will improve your mental and emotional health, as well as build your confidence as a parent during your time in the NICU – and beyond.
Seigel, D.J. (2012). The Developing Mind: How Relationships, and the Brain Interact to
Shape Who We Are. Second Edition. New York: The Guildford Press.
Cheryl A. Milford, Ed.S. has been a practicing educational psychologist for 35 years. Cheryl has spent the last 31 years of her career providing psychological, neurodevelopmental and infant mental health services in neonatal intensive care units and developmental follow-up clinics through her company, Cheryl Milford Consulting.