Having a baby in the neonatal intensive care unit is a traumatic experience. No one is ever really prepared. You have probably felt emotions during your baby’s NICU stay that you never imagined feeling. You have celebrated things you never knew you would and seen things you never imagined.
All of the emotions that you experience in the NICU – grief, guilt, depression, anxiety, fear – are normal and appropriate. They are natural responses to traumatic events. They are not a sign of weakness. They are a healthy part of adapting and adjusting to being your baby’s parent.
Here are some of the things you may be feeling or may feel in the coming weeks and months. While all these feelings are normal, it is important for you and your family to recognize if they become a problem and know how to get the help and support you need if they do.
Grief & guilt
Grief is what you feel when you lose something that is important to you. If your baby is in the NICU, it is normal to grieve. You are allowed to feel sad and angry that your pregnancy didn’t go as you expected and that your baby needs critical care. Maybe you feel guilty that you might have done something to cause this. The truth is that you can do everything right and still end up in the NICU, and you can do everything wrong and still have a healthy birth. Talk to your doctors and ask questions. You may or may not be able to find reasons why this happened. Most of the time we don’t know the reason. While it’s important to find out what you need to do to take care of your baby and yourself, it is also important for you to forgive yourself and your body.
Sometimes it can be hard to tell the difference between feeling tired and feeling depressed. While your baby is in the NICU, you are probably trying to keep up with a busy schedule of driving back and forth to the hospital and managing things both in the NICU and at home. It’s understandable if you’re feeling emotional and exhausted. It is important for you to recognize signs of depression and to know what to do if the symptoms persist.
Postpartum depression is common. If you feel any of these symptoms for more than a month or two, talk to someone and make a plan. There are things you can do to feel better and medications that can help. You may have depression if you have these symptoms:
- Exhaustion – You feel tired and overwhelmed by everything you need to do.
- Inability to Sleep – You have difficulty falling asleep or staying asleep.
- Loss of Appetite – You make time to eat, but aren’t interested in food, and you don’t get hungry when you should.
- Sadness and Mood Swings – You feel like you are sadder than you should be or you feel like your emotions are more than you can manage.
- You Know Something is Wrong – You know how you are feeling is not right and doesn’t make sense.
Anxiety & acute stress
While your baby is in the NICU, you learn to be hyper-vigilant. You wash your hands hundreds of times and watch the monitors and equipment to keep track of everything your baby is doing. It can all make you feel a little crazy. Anxiety can feel like:
- Nervousness – You’re aware of all the things that can go wrong and feel like you’re waiting for the next bad thing to happen.
- Fearfulness – You are afraid of what happens in the NICU and worried about what your baby is feeling.
- Anger and Irritation – You are either mad at the people around you or mad at the situation, but you can’t stop feeling annoyed.
Many NICU parents will experience symptoms of a condition called Acute Stress Disorder (ASD). ASD develops when you witness traumatic events. You may feel:
- Frightened – You may have witnessed terrible and terrifying things.
- Disconnected – You might feel like this isn’t “real” and that this isn’t possible.
- Surprised by What You’re Feeling – A sound or smell might trigger an overwhelming reaction or make you feel like you’re reliving something that already happened.
Acute Stress Disorder is a normal physiological response. It is how our brains and bodies react to trauma. The symptoms usually appear within a month and get better over the next few weeks. If your symptoms don’t get better – or they get worse – you may have developed a more serious condition called PTSD.
Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
PTSD is an anxiety disorder characterized by persistent, debilitating physical and emotional symptoms. The symptoms are grouped into three types:
- Intrusive Memories – Having flashbacks or feeling like you’re reliving the experience over and over again.
- Avoidance & Numbing – Trying not to feel the intense emotions that you fear you might.
- Increased Anxiety & Emotional Arousal – Feeling like you can’t relax because something bad might happen.
How to get help
There are two important things you need to know about these feelings and conditions. They are normal, and they are temporary. You will feel better. All of these people can help:
- Your doctor – Talk to your doctor, OB/GYN or pediatrician. Print this screening tool to take with you.
- Social worker – Call the NICU social worker. They will know how to get help.
- Professional counselor – Many professionals specialize in helping with these conditions.
- Community resources – Support is available online and by phone. Connect with Hand to Hold’s online communities for valuable resources and support.
- Family and friends – They want to help even if they’re not sure how. Tell them what you need. Read how you can help a loved one.
- Peer support – Hand to Hold can connect you with families just like yours who know what you’re feeling and how to get better.
Caring for your emotional and mental health is an important part of taking care of yourself. You don’t deserve to feel this way. You deserve to feel healthy, and you can get better.
3 Resources you should know
Postpartum Support International provides resources about perinatal mood and anxiety disorders.
Postpartum Progress is a community website that shares the stories of other women and men who have experienced PPD, as well as valuable resources and information about perinatal mood disorders.