Giving birth to a baby that requires NICU support is never easy. Coping with separation from your NICU baby can be difficult. Whether you are prepared ahead of time for a NICU stay, or one is thrust upon you with an unexpected labor and delivery, there is no “easier” path for navigating the myriad feelings that accompany leaving the hospital after giving birth without a baby in your arms.
Among the many feelings that accompanied my own unexpected delivery, anxiety was paramount. Yes, there was anger, and some unexpected joy, and deep sadness – and jealousy – but, above all, anxiety reigned supreme. Every moment post birth seemed like I was carrying the weight of the world with me wherever I went. My son, my world. I worried about him when I was with him, and I worried even more when I had to tear myself away to eat, shower and sleep before returning to his side again.
After the first month of our 75-day NICU stay, I knew I had to start dealing with my anxieties or they were going to ruin my health – mental, emotional and physical. So I began to try to claw my way out of the black hole of anxiety that constantly enveloped me by intentionally seeking out support.
I initially turned to Facebook – as many of us do. I posted about my son multiple times a day and drank in the prayers and well-wishes. Even though I couldn’t be with my friends and family in person, knowing they cared and were sending their love did help. I then took another step and started my own local support group on Facebook for NICU parents because I needed to hear from others who were or had been in the same position. The response was overwhelming. I found that some of my anxieties were eased just merely by sharing our story with others who “got it.” But, as much as the online support helped, I knew that I also needed to find refuge from anxiety outside of the NICU walls.
Take breaks from the NICU
Occupying your time away from your NICU baby with things other than eating, showering and sleeping can be difficult. Initially it seemed selfish to read a book or take time for a walk, because what if something happened to my son while I was away? What if I took a nap and missed a call from the NICU?
I had to combat these thoughts, so I started by making an appointment to take a break for myself once a week. One week I’d get a haircut, the next I’d schedule a manicure, and the next I’d make myself go to a coffee shop for 30 minutes. These “intentional outings” were very hard to enjoy at first. My thoughts were not on myself, nor were they anywhere near relaxing, but the habit of making myself take time for me was important and eventually became easier and more enjoyable. Over time the mere act of taking care of my own needs for a bit allowed me to breathe and recenter in order to be more attentive and attuned to my son’s needs.
Bring some of the NICU home
Taking mementos home from the NICU helped me to have a semblance of connectedness with my child even when we couldn’t physically be together. Whether it was a scent cloth that he had been wrapped in that day, an item of clothing that he had worn, or a piece of paper with his stamped handprint given to me by a nurse, I found that having a physical item to carry with me was so helpful. Something I could look at or smell made me feel like we weren’t completely separated. These items often helped my milk production when pumping as well, so it was a win-win!
Call the NICU for an update
The stress of being separated from your NICU baby can be alleviated with phone calls or live camera feeds, where available. While our hospital didn’t have the capability for NICU parents to remotely monitor their children by camera feed (which many hospitals now do – so ask!), I did have the ability to call the NICU hotline for an update from the nurses 24/7. To say I utilized this tool often would be an understatement. I called each night before I went to sleep and again as soon as my eyes popped open in the morning, and many times in the middle of the night when I couldn’t sleep. Just knowing that I could find out how he was doing when I wasn’t right there to watch him breathe and listen to all of his monitors made me feel so much better.
Ask for a primary nurse
Another major anxiety buster for me was having a primary nurse. Nurse Mimi was a godsend for our family. She asked to be his primary nurse soon after his NICU stay began, due to his various life-threatening diagnoses.
I had no idea what a primary nurse was, that I could have requested one, or why they were critical, but after weeks of playing “nurse roulette” and meeting a new nurse each shift, I found it so comforting to know that Nurse Mimi would be with my son each time she was in the NICU. And, the fact that she only worked night shifts meant that someone I came to love and trust dearly was with my son during the overnight hours when I could not be. To this day I still keep in touch with Nurse Mimi, and our son has come to love her through the stories of their time together. Thinking of her kind words, the notes that she left me, and her warm hugs still brings a sense of calm over me to this day.
Find someone to talk to
Talking about anxieties with loved ones proved difficult for me. I am a people pleaser and helper, so I didn’t want to put my worries onto others. I wanted to convey strength for my son’s sake – like we’d pull through with sheer brute force and determination, and I felt admitting that I was fearful would somehow weaken this resolve. I did not want to acknowledge that keeping my fears and feelings to myself was destructive to both my own health but also to some of my closest relationships.
It was not until I broke down over dinner with my husband one night that I finally understood that keeping a brave face for so long was so detrimental to my health – and to his ability to open up about his own feelings! I knew I had to start speaking about how I was feeling.
Seek professional help
After a month of trying to be the pillar of strength, I sought professional support. I reached out to a therapist close to the hospital with experience in the areas of birth trauma and maternal mental health. I am so thankful that I did. The hours spent in her office felt like a respite from the world that was out of my control. I was finally able to cry openly and accept our situation in a guilt-free zone. I could say things that I otherwise had not been able to put into words that once spoken felt very liberating.
Thankfully, my therapist noticed the signs of postpartum depression and PTSD and referred me to a psychiatrist who was able to prescribe medications that truly, truly made a difference on my outlook and ability to cope. I felt like I had been heard and taken care of – just as I was trying to do for my own child.
The NICU world is scary and confusing. It’s not something that one would ever wish for nor one that anyone should ever have to deal with alone. But, there are ways to help lighten the emotional load and the first step is to ask for help. Reach out to your NICU nurses, social workers and Hand to Hold. Ask for resources and support! Don’t be ashamed to let your guard down and to ask for a “hand to hold.” You need to take care of YOU so you can take care of your baby!
Support is just a click away. Find virtual support groups, private Facebook communities, podcasts and peer support for NICU families today.