Holidays in the NICU: Coping Strategies for NICU Parents

December 14, 2023
holidays in the NICU

The holidays are known for their joy, excitement, and nostalgia. The decor, music, and sights intend to amplify those feelings. However, the holidays aren’t always a time marked by warmth and feelings of love. Spending the holidays in the NICU can be difficult for many and can conjure up feelings of doubt, sadness, stress, and grief. You may also experience an increased sense of responsibility. Many times, the sense of obligation is an obligation to feel positive feelings and spend time with family; we’re exposed to a list of “supposed to’s.”

What if you don’t want to? What if you can’t? What if you’re a parent in the NICU, feeling the loss of the first holiday you dreamed of at home with your little one? What if you’re a parent grieving the loss of your child?

You are not alone.

This year may feel especially overwhelming and lonely. If you’re spending the holidays in the NICU, visiting your baby in the daily, you may be experiencing waves of conflicting emotions in addition to exhaustion. If you’re mourning the loss of your child, you may not feel like celebrating or even engaging in family holiday traditions. There are ways for you to honor your needs and grief during this time.

Holidays in the NICU: Coping Strategies for NICU Parents

Photo courtesy Becky O’Dell

Be kind to yourself

Kindness can be as simple as taking a walk around the hospital or recognizing the need to take a nap. It’s okay to leave the NICU to shower and get a meal. It’s okay to take a break. 

Ask for and accept help

Perhaps you’ve been wanting to put your holiday decorations up at home and haven’t had the energy or the time. Ask other family members or friends to help with tasks that give you an opportunity to revel in the holiday spirit in any way you want to. Also, allow friends and family to set up a meal train for you. You can nourish your body and your spirit.

Drink more water

Cortisol, the stress hormone, increases in your body when you’re under stress and grieving. Increased levels of cortisol can cause dehydration, which can also contribute to other issues, such as difficulty concentrating and a weakened immune system. This is one tangible way to care for yourself and lessen the effects cortisol will have on your body.

Create a plan

This plan may incorporate ways to take breaks from the NICU, spend time with any other children you have, or just knowing how you will structure your time around other family. You and your partner can script any response you need to communicate what you need or what you want during this time.

Give yourself permission to grieve

You might be grieving the loss of your first holiday with your baby at home and the expectations that are attached to that. You might be grieving the loss of your child. Give yourself the space to express your feelings. If you try to ignore the grief, it will be harder to find your way through it. Surround yourself with people who understand grief, start a journal, or join a support group (in person or online)


Give yourself permission to experience joy

Wear holiday clothes and accessories to the NICU. Decorate your child’s bay. Bring a treat for the nurses. Find joy in creating new traditions. Talk about your child with friends and family. You may find that joy pairs well with relief.

However you need to experience the holidays, honor it. Take this time to connect with other NICU and bereaved parents. Share tips and stories. Spending the holidays in the hospital or without your baby is not a holiday you imagined. Give yourself the best gift you can during this season: compassion.

hand to hold peer mentorWould you like to talk to another parent who has been where you are now? Request a peer mentor and you’ll be connected with a trained, volunteer NICU-graduate mentor.