To say the NICU is a stressful place to be is explicitly stating the obvious. NICU parents and their loved ones will all agree that it is extremely stressful to have your baby in the hospital, connected to tubes and wires and requiring treatment. The uncertainty of your day to day life leaves you feeling completely helpless and out of control.
But what we don’t hear about is just how stressful it can be. We’re not just talking “feeling a heavy weight on your shoulders” stress. Or an “I can’t believe this is happening” stress.
It is a “full body, mind and spirit experience that is so constant that you don’t even realize you’re stressed anymore” stress.
Stress becomes a way of life.
The anxiety so bad that you can’t sleep. The tension in your shoulders and neck so tight you don’t even recognize it as tense anymore. You can’t even count how often you hold your breath because you don’t even realize you’re doing it.
Whether you call it stress, anxiety, worry, terror or just plain out of control, it is real. It is your reality.
I remember when my son was first born, I had literally developed tunnel vision due to my stress and fear that my son wouldn’t survive. It took almost 2 weeks before I actually looked around the NICU and saw the other beds and the layout of the unit that would be home for the next several months.
NICU-related stress is not something that happens to you or something you go through. It just is.
But the NICU, no matter how long you are there, is a marathon not a sprint. You can’t lose sleep or hold your breath indefinitely. It just doesn’t work that way because your baby needs you at your best.
Self-care can feel so indulgent and so inappropriate to NICU moms and dads who may feel guilty for taking time away to focus on themselves while their baby is fighting in a hospital.
And I get that. Nurses would always tell me that I should stay home some days or encouraged my husband and I to have date nights. But it felt so wrong.
Now that we are a little over 2 years out of the NICU, I can see why it was important to try to do it. But I also still remember why it didn’t feel doable at the time.
The other barrier for many parents to lowering stress in the NICU is that it feels impossible.
How can I stress less if my baby is still fighting for his life?!
It’s a very common and very realistic question to ask.
I can’t promise that by managing your stress your entire situation will improve. I wish I could tell you that lowering your stress will make your baby healthy or take you closer to discharge.
But what I can tell you is that lowering your stress and anxiety is not only good for you but it is good for your baby too.
When you are keeping your stress low, not only are you breathing better, you are thinking more clearly, making more confident decisions and most importantly, you are more fully present for the special moments that you share with your little miracle.
So here are five NICU-friendly tips on how to stress less despite how scary life may be right now.
1. Breathe deeply. While you are sitting at the bedside watching your little one sleep or kangarooing with your baby, make it a point to breathe deeply from your diaphragm. If an emergency arises, remind yourself to breathe deeply through it. Holding your breath will only make the panic feel worse.
2. Find something to laugh about. Listen to a podcast, watch a funny video or even ask your nurse to tell you a joke (I’ve done that!). I am all for dark humor, so if you can share a joke with a fellow preemie parent or your nurse about NICU life, go for it! Laughter is one of the most powerful antidotes for stress and it is completely free so try to incorporate it into your day. Not only will it feel really good to let out a good laugh but I like to think our babies thrive on hearing us laugh and feeling good.
3. Hum a tune. Humming can actually have a positive effect on your stress level. And what a wonderful way to spend some time holding your baby or sitting by the isolette.
4. Be present. Don’t think too far ahead. The NICU is the ultimate test for practicing mindfulness. Be present in the moment you are in and nowhere else. Take time to notice where you are, how the chair feels, how cool the air is and how you feel. Any time you find your mind wandering to the “”what ifs”, bring yourself back to right here, right now.
5. Reach out for help. Ask to be connected to your hospital’s social worker or find an outside professional who can support you through your NICU journey. The NICU is a lonely, isolating place which only exacerbates the stress you are already feeling. You do not have to go through this alone. Talk to someone who understands and can help you cope through this terrifying time.
The stressful situation you are in is inevitable. But the stress you feel can be managed in ways that take into account the hectic schedule you keep in the NICU. As impossible as it may feel, you can feel less stress and anxiety even as your baby is in the hospital. There is hope.
What do you do to keep your stress or anxiety low in the NICU?