By Nandini Narayanan, LCSW, C-IAYT, 500RYT, Reiki, NICU Parent
True compassion always includes ourselves. –Jack Kornfield
Since the birth of our micro preemie twelve years ago at 25 weeks, 3 days, weighing 1 pound, 10 ounces, mindfulness and self-compassion are vital practices that sustain my journey as a NICU parent. I was familiar with the importance of self-care because of my training as a medical social worker. The NICU trail of 129 days between two major hospitals in Boston gave my husband and I ample opportunities to practice self-care. I later learned in professional courses about radical acts of self-compassion and mindfulness in mitigating trauma, and fostering post-traumatic growth.
What is mindfulness?
Most simply, mindfulness practice is defined as the act of being open, curious and aware of experiences moment-to-moment. The five senses: sight, hearing, touch, smell and taste as well as other subtler senses like interoception or sensing one’s inner experience such as breath, hunger, thirst, body temperature; the sensations of emotional and mental states such as distress, panic, denial, calm or joy; and the existential sense of connection and belonging to a bigger, awesome whole, are doorways to being mindful in the present moment. While being anchored in one’s senses for a NICU parent may be overwhelming, when paired with the practice of self-compassion, the ability to endure and build resilience through the traumatic nature of the NICU experience is bolstered. This prevents later effects of trauma. Contemplative practices from most world traditions have taught us the power of breath and it’s healing qualities. Breath awareness is a basic mindfulness practice.
I remember experiencing mindful moments unexpectedly during the NICU journey. Mundane tasks of laundry or visiting the NICU and observing our preemie’s teeny-tiny body became meditative. Washing little onesies, neatly folding a miniscule sleeve and seeing happy yellow giraffes on bibs were uplifting. Laundry grounded me back into my body so I could be in the present moment. This helped generate a wellspring of hope, energy and possibility as it reminded me that if I could attend wholeheartedly to this task I could attend to the next task during the long days in the NICU. At the isolette, I paid close attention to my baby and marveled at his translucent skin, peach fuzz hair to his brow line, smooth chest free of nipples and the dime-size width of his pink palms. Even though this type of careful attention clarified he was not a “normal” full-term baby, it dramatically built small sensations of self-trust, accomplishment and dignity to be present with my baby, while also feeling vulnerable and helpless.
What is self-compassion?
Self-compassion has been studied for centuries in ancient traditions. Today psychologist Kristin Neff, PhD, researches self-compassion with academic rigor. Findings listed below from almost a thousand studies show the benefits of self-compassion for children and adults facing a crisis or stressors of daily living:
- Decrease in anxiety/depression
- Increases happiness/creativity
- Decreases chronic pain
- Improved self-worth
- Increases caregiver wellbeing/prevents burnout
Self-compassion’s 3 essential components:
- Mindfulness: Noticing suffering arising moment-to-moment with openness, curiosity and non-judgment
- Self-kindness: Offering genuine good will toward oneself, acting with compassion to relieve personal suffering
- Common humanity: Connecting to the larger human family, recognizing the imperfection of the human condition
For me, self-compassion in the NICU meant taking a break to eat a sumptuous veggie wrap and feel satiated. I relished the fresh crisp bell peppers, creamy cheese and lively spinach. I understood viscerally that if I fed my body well, my milk supply would last. I could pump eight times a day and store it away until our son could receive it after surgery. It also meant lamenting and grieving while being kind to myself between bouts of guilt and inadequacy. I often talked to myself, saying, “This is tough,” or “It’s going to be okay,” and “You’ll get through this.” I felt a sense of my inner self offering kindness through these words. Such self-love was just as important as the love I received from my steadfast husband, circle of close friends and family.
Self-compassionate language and phrases that are used in this practice come from classical lovingkindness meditation. Elegantly simple phrases help open our hearts to be friendly and kind.
Practice: “Heart Embrace” is a warm gesture that gives a sense of calm when feeling vulnerable or exhausted. Place your hands over your heart, feel your touch. Relax your neck, shoulders and soften your elbows.Tune in to your inhale and exhale for a few rounds while feeling the warmth of your hands and say phrases like:
“This is a moment of suffering.”
“Being human includes suffering and joys.”
“I’m doing the very best I can, it’s enough”
“May I be kind to myself.”
Mindfulness + self-compassion = healing
Mindfulness and compassion go together. To offer self-kindness we must be aware of what’s happening in our bodies, thoughts and emotions. Otherwise, there is a numbing or detaching from experience that in brief moments serve to protect and preserve our ability to withstand threatening experiences, but too often it can disconnect us from feeling and experiencing pain, happiness or deeper needs. This disconnect disempowers, as it disables us from acting on our own behalf. Because the NICU journey and preemie parenting has life-long ripples, these practices reconnect us to inner reservoirs of power and grace when practiced regularly.
At each stage of our son’s development I have been daunted by moments of vulnerability, unsure if I’d be able to protect him from the challenges of his early birth. Apprehensive about his breathing if he was congested after a summer swim, for example. Self-compassion is my single most valuable remedy, as it gives me courage to feel the raw agony of vulnerability (feeling lack of control or inadequacy), and paradoxically gain in faith and freedom.
Furthermore, these practices prime the wellspring of compassion we are asked to bring to others: partners, children, our NICU team and the cast of developmental therapy professionals we meet long after the NICU. Sustaining the lengthy NICU trail and beyond is possible by cultivating a steady practice of mindfulness and self-compassion: when feelings of guilt or grief arise watching my son attend his hundredth occupational therapy session or seeing him struggle with neat hand writing because of weak fine motor muscles or when pleading for empathy from school staff to support his cognitive challenges with math concepts. At these moments I feel alone. Self-compassion helps. I imagine being cradled by a larger family of mothers and grandmothers. I understand that if I can choose self-compassion, so can my son. I wish that as our son grapples, triumphs and forges ahead in life, he may befriend his vulnerabilities and be bold to offer himself and others healthy doses of mindfulness and compassion, one breath at a time.
Self-Compassion by Kristin Neff, PhD
Radical Acceptance by Tara Brach, PhD
The Wise Heart by Jack Kornfield, PhD
The Healing Power of Breath by Richard P. Brown, MD & Patricia L. Gerbarg, MD
Everyday Blessings: the Inner Work of Mindful Parenting by Myla Kabat-Zinn and Jon Kabat-Zinn
The Harvard Medical School Guide to Yoga by Marlynn Wei & James E. Groves, MD
About Nandini Narayanan, LCSW
Nandini Narayanan, LCSW, has been firmly rooted in the field of psychological, spiritual and emotional health as a licensed clinical social worker trained in medical social work for the past twenty years. She integrates social work, mind-body medicine, yoga and mindfulness together in her approach to helping her patients, clients and students. Within hospital NICUs, counseling sessions and yoga classes, Nandini shares mindfulness and yoga based practices to uplift and promote healing and health for healthcare providers, patients and their families, helping shape the healthcare model for integrative and preventative care. Narayanan currently teaches mindfulness classes for NICU parents in her residence of Newport Beach, CA. Find out more here.